Bengaluru, Dec 01: India's desi military plane projects from the ‘Light Series' - the Light Combat Aircraft, Advanced Light Helicopter, Light Combat Helicopter, Light Utility Helicopter and the Intermediate Jet Trainer - seem to have all benefitted extensively from the Human Engineering Department , a specialised wing of Institute of Aerospace Medicine (IAM).
During a facility visit to the IAM, one of the key centres of Indian Air Force (IAF) located in Bengaluru, this Correspondent witnessed some of the advancements in human engineering, with all the focus falling on the human being in the working system.
And, when the country finally decides to take the plunge to undertake manned space missions, again IAM is all geared up to play a role in shaping the future.
IAM Commandant Air Commodore Deepak Gaur swears by their primary mission of ensuring safety and efficiency in aerospace environment. He says human performance optimisation can never be complete without knowing the human being in the system.
"The psychological aspects that determine how a person reacts to situations, the physiological needs of nutrition and sleep, the physical requirements of strength and dexterity, and cognitive capabilities to deal with present day military aerospace environment are the subjects of research in human engineering," says Air Commodore Deepak.
"Anthropometry, the study of human parameter measurements, is an important area Human Engineering Department specialises in. The department has been constantly dealing with options to optimise the potential of the human being in his work environment," he says.
As specialists, IAM helps the aircraft designers come out with a safe and efficient cockpit that optimally utilises the potential of the pilot and overcomes any human limitations.
IAM officials say that the safety of aircrew in a combat aircraft is ensured by a three-pronged strategy.
"First we design a workspace around the pilot which is safe during operations. Next we provide protective clothing for the aircrew to keep them safe during normal operations. And, finally we give a reasonably safe escape from the aircraft in the eventuality of damage due to enemy action or mechanical failure," says Air Commodore Deepak.
IAM also assesses the designs and mock-ups of the cockpit for potential to cause injury during operations, suggests the type and quality of protective gear that should be worn by the aircrew and assess the escape systems to ensure safe exit of the aircrew in any eventuality.
Associated with the LCA project from an early stage
The experts from IAM were part of the development of LCA right from defining the cockpit dimensional requirements to suit the IAF aircrew.
"The escape system assessment threw up questions that needed aero-medical answers. It was an interesting journey for us to study the forces that the human operator might be subjected to and the pattern of injuries it might result in. We as doctors and specialists in the field of human engineering take immense pride in helping make the aircraft safe during its operational life," says an official.
With IJT, the IAM brains had to evolve a unique plan, owing to the different role the platform had to play.
"The IJT, when it becomes operational, would be flown by all trainee pilots in the fixed wing aircraft streams. So the challenge in IJT was to make it compatible with a larger spectrum of IAF aircrew. When we assess the cockpit for safety, our responsibility is not only to our current aircrew, but also to future generations of aircrew in IAF. Again, in IJT, the issues that we encountered were in making the escape systems safe for operation by all envisaged aircrew," he says.
Even for the ALH and LUH projects, the workspace assessment for anthropometric compatibility was carried out at the IAM.
"When we are talking of anthropometric compatibility, our concern is two-fold. The smallest aircrew should be able to reach and operate all necessary controls. The largest aircrew should have enough clearances from cockpit structures for safe operation and quick exit without fouling. So the assessment is for ease of entry and exit, ability to actuate all controls safely during normal operation of the aircraft, assessment of safety features such as harness systems which saves lives in case of survivable crashes and assess the possibility of safe quick exit from the aircraft in case of an emergency on ground," says another expert.
Long duration space missions challenging
To a query on IAM's role in India's future space missions, the officials said that the challenges of limited workspace, unique force environment and long duration of missions are going to be key areas of concerns where the institute would provide answers.
"The potential is enormous. From designing of space suits to organising a space vehicle layout for optimising astronaut efficiency and planning for safe retrieval of the astronaut in case of any eventuality. We have the knowledgebase to extend consultancy for a human space mission," he adds.
On the issue of dealing with stress and fatigue of aircrew, IAM has been working on physical fitness programmes, nutrition for long duration operations and sleep patterns.
To another query on the future of human engineering, IAM officials sight aerospace safety in flight and space missions as key areas.
"As the workspace becomes more technology-centric, the focus is likely to shift to understanding the human cognitive abilities and utilise technology to augment human cognitive limitations and optimise human output by exploiting cognitive capabilities," adds an official.
(The writer is a seasoned aerospace and defence journalist in India. Currently a Post-Doctoral Fellow with University of Mysore, he is a Consulting Editor (Defence) with OneIndia. He tweets @writetake.)