At the National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI), work is being conducted to develop a software package that can assist pilots and astronauts with realizing their true spatial orientation, a problem commonly experienced in moving aircraft when land is not seen. The software is designed to calculate a craft’s orientation in space as perceived by its pilot, and provide feedback to its actual positioning. The researchers believe that, among other things, the system may help medevac helicopter pilots work in dark, dusty, and other environments with limited visibility.
From a NSBRI press release:
The project involves specially designed software that monitors the flight of the vehicle – speed, heading, pitch and altitude – and the actions of the pilot. The system will use audio and visual cues to alert pilots of problems before things get out of hand. The group is also looking at the option of testing a vest with pager-like vibrators distributed throughout that vibrate in a sequence to alert the pilot when an orientation correction is needed.
Small [Ron Small, principal system engineer at Alion Science and Technology Corp., in Boulder, Colorado] is working closely with co-investigator Dr. Charles Oman, who is NSBRI’s Sensorimotor Adaptation Team Leader and director of the Man Vehicle Laboratory at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. To better understand the problems facing astronauts, the group is building on information from Small’s previous studies of spatial disorientation for the U.S. military and analyzing data from aircraft accidents and space missions. The group has consulted with experts such as former astronaut Dr. Thomas Jones.
“As we go forward with deep space exploration and return to the moon, it’s important to provide the latest tools in the cockpit to help pilots from being misled by spatial disorientation,” said Jones, a former U.S. Air Force pilot and veteran of four space shuttle flights. “Spatial disorientation mistakes in space are very rare, but because of mission costs and the potential for loss of life, you want to do everything possible to preclude them.”
The group has tested the software’s ability to detect spatial disorientation incidents. They are now working to better understand the differences in craft movement in the atmosphere and in space and how the human inner ear functions in both environments. The inner ear helps control the sense of orientation.
The researchers are putting emphasis on lunar landings due to the challenges of reduced gravity and the unfamiliar, dusty terrain. Data collected from helicopters will play a large role in the research since the rotary-propelled aircrafts’ movements are most like a spacecraft touching down on the moon. Low-gravity flight experiments and lunar lander simulations are slated to begin next year.
The project team members believe the onboard aids developed for spaceflight will be an essential tool for pilots of medical emergency helicopters, who often respond to auto accidents on dark, rainy nights when it is easy to become disoriented. Military and civilian pilots are also likely to benefit from the research.