AFRL partnership seeks to “engineer” improved human performance

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio (AFRL) – For athletes, achieving peak performance takes more than skill and practice. Other important but less obvious factors — including nutrition, sleep, mental state, resilience, and more — are critical in maximizing potential. The Air Force Research Laboratory has teamed with small business partners to understand this total picture of human resilience and performance.

Together with Engineering Sports Performance LLC and RippleWorx Inc., AFRL will explore and improve human performance capabilities to benefit military personnel as well as civilian first responders.

“Many people own devices such as wearable fitness monitors to track their exercise and health,” said Dr. Mark Derriso, chief engineer at AFRL’s 711th Human Performance Wing. “But counting steps or even engaging in a rigorous physical training regimen only accounts for part of the performance picture. Through this collaboration, we’ll merge engineering principles with traditional training philosophies to engage the whole human machine for optimal resilience and performance.”

AFRL first began exploring this idea in 2014 with Ed Downs, a professional sports trainer and CEO of Engineering Sports Performance, by studying a group of Air Force volunteers in an eight week-long intensive training regimen. Employing Downs’ training system, Derriso and a team of AFRL researchers asked subjects to perform a number of tasks that required not only physical stamina but concentration, focus, recall, and decision-making ability as well. These drills involved performing physical exercises while executing mental tasks or performing intricate mechanical tasks.

As participants advanced through the study, Derriso and Downs found that their skills and completion times improved, an indication that the participants were showing significant advancements in cognition and physical performance.

“This study and additional research showed that the same methods used to improve athletes’ skills could be refined and targeted to maximize performance of Airmen,” said Derriso. “By extension, we theorized that a similar methodology could be applied to first responders and workers in similar demanding environments, so it made a lot of sense to continue this research through a cooperative partnership.”

After developing Human Engineered Resilience Optimization — a training regimen dubbed HERO —AFRL and their partners entered into a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement with the goal of testing and refining the performance-maximizing training regimen for both military and commercial purposes. Through the terms of the agreement, Engineering Sports Performance and RippleWorx will provide training development and execution, while AFRL will improve and validate the HERO model via data collection, parameter identification and development, and data analysis and documentation.

Derriso explained that working with the small businesses provides the means to implement testing among a number of users in both the public and private sector. He said that RippleWorx and Engineering Sports Performance will initially begin testing the training technique with the Huntsville, Ala., Police Department. Such “real world” implementation with this and other organizations will allow the research partners to assess the effectiveness of the training methodology by following the progress of participants over a period of several months.

According to Derriso, this collaborative partnership stands to benefit the Air Force in numerous ways. Not only can this unique approach be used to train higher performing Airmen, but it could also decrease the amount of time it takes to train personnel for operation-specific tasks. The techniques modeled and refined through the collaboration could potentially be used to train Airmen who are better prepared to function in high stress, high risk scenarios they may encounter in the field.

“This research represents a new way to think about preparing our Airmen to function at the highest levels,” he said. “It’s a modern engineering approach applied to humans in a new way.”

image of testing

The Air Force Research Laboratory has teamed with small business partners Engineering Sports Performance LLC, and RippleWorx Inc. to develop, refine, and validate innovative training methodologies based on engineering principles. Here, Ed Downs, CEO of Engineering Sports Performance, assesses a client during a training session, modeled in the image on the right via a 3D motion capture suit. (U.S. Air Force graphic)