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Steve Casey's ergonomic predictions


Steven Casey, PhD
Certified Professional Ergonomist
Ergonomic Systems Design, Inc.
Santa Barbara, California USA

The origins of the field of ergonomics or human factors engineering can be traced directly back to the second world war and the efforts by the British and American military to build equipment that better suited the characteristics, needs, and limitations of users. Initial efforts focused on more usable airplane cockpit controls and displays and reducing the frequency of design-induced operator error. This lead to the development of design standards and techniques which were eventually applied to the development of industrial vehicles and commercial products. Easy-to-read displays, control shape codes, acceptable operating forces, reach and movement envelopes, and seating and related elements that adjust to fit the needs of the user are among the features that worked their way into the industrial vehicle market.

If cutting edge advancements in ergonomics often originate in military programs, a look at ongoing developments in military ergonomics might provide a window to the future ergonomic surprises in the industrial vehicle sector. The following are three technologies which seem to meet the requirement.

Automatic Ground Collision Avoidance System (Auto-GCAS). After many years of testing, the U.S. Air Force has initiated “operational development” of a system that automatically takes safe control of a fighter jet when it is seconds away from impacting the ground in what would otherwise be a fatal “controlled flight into terrain” accident. Such accidents account for 25 percent of all losses of fighter aircraft, a percentage that has remained frustratingly unchanged for the past 40 years. The first operational installation of Auto-GCAS will occur in 2014. It is estimated that the devices will save 250 lives and 127 billion U.S. dollars over the next 25 years. A few years ago I attended a presentation on the system in which an F-16 pilot pointed the nose of his jet toward the ground, took his hands off the controls, and the plane pulled up a hundred feet or so above the ground. It was a terrifying but impressive demonstration.

Looking down the road a few years and with such technology in mind, imagine a forklift truck with an automatic dock detection system which would prohibit off-the-dock accidents, a materials handling tug in a factory with a vehicle avoidance system, or a lawn tractor with a child avoidance system. The Auto-GCAS system slated for deployment by the U.S. Air Force suggests that this general class of “protective” technologies will soon see application in the industrial vehicle industry.

Remote and Autonomous Control. With another example from military aviation, the recent worldwide interest in UAVs or Unmanned Air Vehicles demonstrates the maturity of the technologies that make it possible for vehicles to operate remotely and even autonomously. The rise of UAVs reflects recent advancements in sensor technology, computer processing power, and even the new forms of user interfaces that are required to operate such systems. With reference to industrial vehicles, imagine a single operator controlling a fleet of autonomous vehicles performing tasks that are largely repetitive but require operational precision. I can envision a fleet of autonomous tractors on a large corporate farm or a fleet of haul trucks in a large surface mine, each being monitored by a one or two-person team in a remote location.

Augmented Vision. Imagine operating an industrial vehicle, particularly one in which unobstructed stereoscopic vision is of paramount importance but is problematic. Driving a traditional forklift truck forward with a large load directly in front of the driver might be a good example. Now imagine driving this same forklift truck while wearing a stereoscopic visor or glasses with integrated displays. Two cameras located outside your cab and above or even in front of your large load provide a naturalistic view forward. There are no posts, no doors, no mast, and no visual obstructions whatsoever in your augmented field of view. Turn your head and the view outside moves naturally, again with nothing between you and the outside even though you are sitting inside. Such a system is already in operation in a military helicopter in which the images from cameras mounted outside the cockpit are displayed in the pilot’s helmet display. When he looks down at the floor all he sees is the earth below him (or his landing site). Looking up reveals just the scene ahead void of cockpit structures. The experience is reported to be like flying on a magic carpet. I predict that some form of this augmented vision system will find its way into an industrial vehicle within the decade.



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