Army 1st Lt. Mahdi Al-Husseini, who is assigned to the 25th Combat Aviation Brigade, gives his presentation on AI pilot performance feedback. Al-Husseini is one of seven soldiers participating in Dragon’s Lair 5. The program was established in October 2020 to help increase innovation in the XVIII Airborne Corps. (Sgt. Marygian Barnes / US Army photo)
A medevac pilot stationed at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, created an “optical black box” to enhance Army pilot training and won the final round of a Fort Bragg, Carolina-based program. North, to encourage soldier-focused innovation within the service.
First Lt. Mahdi Al-Husseini, who flies HH-60 Black Hawk helicopters with the 25th Infantry Division, used artificial intelligence to invent Aura, a computer program that provides pilots with feedback on their flights to assess the performance and develop personalized training plans. He presented his prototype Monday at Fort Bragg for the fifth edition of Dragon’s Lair, an innovation program based on the television show “Shark Tank”.
“This is an incredibly well-deserved recognition,” said Major General Joe Ryan, commander of the 25th Infantry Division. “The system he designed and built, with its implications for improving the safety of pilots and soldiers, is revolutionary.”
Seven soldiers presented ideas to a panel of 11 leadership members of the 18th Airborne Corps, the base’s top headquarters. The panel also included former winners and experts from the civil technology industry. Al-Husseini, 25, was the first soldier outside the 18th Airborne Corps to participate, bringing the entire army into a corps program that began in October and led to at least four other innovations, including one to modernize range programming and another to address how the military responds to sexual assault and harassment.
âI like this notion of an inventor soldier,â Al-Husseini said. âI think there is something really valuable and powerful about having soldiers who are able to somehow improve their own mission sets that they know better than anyone and provide them with the tools and resources to do so. . “
Instead of trying to build a system into the plane itself, Al-Husseini built a computer and camera system that can be added to any plane that has glass screens. It scans the instrumentation data on the cockpit screens, analyzes them and determines the maneuvers performed by the pilot. The data is then compared to the standards described in the flight manuals to inform the pilot if he is meeting the standards.
Aura can tell pilots how far away they are in terms of wind speed, altitude, and heading, among other metrics. He can also show them by using the data to create a visual of the maneuver available through a tablet app, Al-Husseini said.
âThe advantage of this is that you can now see exactly what you are doing, and you can review and store that data for later use,â he said. âIf you are training or practicing, all of a sudden you now have very clear, objective and dynamic in-flight updates that let you see how well you are doing and then adjust your performance, to new in flight.
This is especially useful when you are flying without an instructor pilot, Al-Husseini said. He took the system with him as he flew a Cessna 172 fixed-wing aircraft to see how it worked. He learned where he struggles with steep turns, and he said it helped him start to improve.
“I’ve never been particularly good on a tight turn,” he said, describing the maneuver which feels like an eight for someone on the ground. “There is very little time in the maneuver for thinking.”
From Aura, Al-Husseini said he could see where he lost altitude and identify a pattern of his flight that he needed to correct.
The 18th Airborne Corps has started implementing the flight program across the unit, as part of the Dragon’s Lair competition victory, said Col. Joe Buccino, the corps innovation officer. From there, they will submit the program to the military for wider implementation.
âMahdi’s program has the potential to revolutionize the way our military manages aviation practices and the performance of pilots and crews,â he said. “It was one of the most developed visionary concepts we have seen entering Dragon’s Lair so far.”
The innovations presented are becoming more competitive, said Buccino, with Al-Husseini’s program narrowly beating second-place winner Lt. Col. Jason Harlan, assigned to the 3rd Infantry Division. He created a self-recovery system for M1 Abrams tanks, which he developed in his garage using his own resources.
Other ideas included a virtual reality program to train mechanics, an update to the weapon distribution system, and a âgo-bagâ for sexual assault response coordinators. Some elements of each of the seven ideas presented on Monday will be implemented in the body, Buccino said.
âSoldiers identify inefficiencies in their daily lives and come up with ideas to resolve them. The command does not have all the ideas or even really sees all the problems. So Dragon’s Lair is harnessing the whole military to find solutions, âhe said. “It’s about embracing ideas, uplifting them, and then empowering the soldier to implement the idea.”
Al-Husseini graduated from the Georgia Institute of Technology with an undergraduate degree in Biomedical Engineering and Public Policy. He continued his studies in a master’s degree in computer science with a specialization in artificial intelligence. He is now studying aeronautics and astronautics online with Stanford University and built the Aura program alongside a classmate, Joshua Barnett. Most of the construction took place in his home office in Hawaii, which he says looks more like a workshop.
Although Al-Husseini was always a builder and interested in engineering, he was drawn to the mission of a medical evacuation pilot.
âI always heard the stories and read about the work they were doing, especially during the Vietnam era. These pilots were carrying out these incredibly daring rescues, putting their lives in danger to evacuate several wounded soldiers from a point of entry. If I could nurture this legacy or support this mission, this effort just a little bit, I couldn’t think of anything more meaningful to do, âhe said. âI realized that I could always put my engineering skills to good use, even though I’m not necessarily in the engineering branch. I certainly found it to be true.
As Aura progresses with the implementation, Al-Husseini said he is not done looking for new ideas. He said he was working with three soldiers in Hawaii on different projects related to their work as a medevac flight crew.
âSoldiers really have the ability and the opportunity to sort of develop the things that affect their individual missions,â he said. âYou don’t have to have a fancy master’s degree or be an engineer to come up with something that makes a difference in what you do every day.