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What Is a Human-Machine System?

By Eugene P.
Updated May 16, 2024
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A human-machine system is one in which a human operator is in some way reliant on, or integrated with, a tool or machine. This can be something as simple as the use of a woodworking tool, or something as complex as flying a remove-surveillance drone via remote controls. The core concept is that the machine is in some way enhancing the abilities of the human user. There are both practical examples in the real world and a large amount of conceptual engineering ideas that fall under the heading of a human-machine system. Many advanced systems are in use in the fields of space exploration, the military and law enforcement.

One example of a commonly used human-machine system is a forklift that might be used in a warehouse or loading dock. This is a machine that requires a human to control it. In turn, the forklift is a machine that enhances the abilities of the human. When working in tandem, this human-machine system allows a single person to lift much more weight than he or she would normally be able to do without the machine.

Another example of a human-machine system is the guidance, targeting and navigational systems on a fighter jet. This system assists the pilot in flying the jet by observing vehicle tolerances, maintaining subsystems so the pilot does not have to do so, and taking initiative in alerting the pilot to anomalous conditions. During combat, the human-machine system can integrate the pilot's head motions with targeting computers that, in some cases, allow a pilot to simply look at a target to direct weapons fire in that direction. This type of interactive extension of a pilot’s abilities and senses is a very advanced use of a human-machine system.

There are many interdisciplinary challenges involved in creating a human-machine system. Beyond the problems of creating a machine that can easily integrate with a human operator, there also are problems such as ergonomics for the human. The machine also needs to have some amount of articulation so the controller is able to use it in a natural way. The actual interface also can be a problem, because the machine might have a configuration that is not intuitive for a human.

There are some companies that work on developing what are now only conceptual human-machine systems. These designs range from exoskeletons for industrial and military use that can be worn like a suit and allow the operator to lift weights far beyond what could normally be done, to fully articulated robots that can be used to work in dangerous environments or even under the ocean. These types of ideas are far from seeing widespread use as of 2011 but are being developed.

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