ARCHIVED - NRC Contributing Flight Testing Expertise to Make Flying Safer

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November 03, 2003— Ottawa, Ontario

Spatial disorientation is a major problem for pilots and accounts for more than 10 per cent of fatal air crashes. The NRC Institute for Aerospace Research is applying its extensive flight-testing expertise to help evaluate a new technology to improve pilot orientation through touch.

Captain Angus Rupert, Director of Spatial Orientation Systems at the U.S. Naval Aerospace Medical Research Laboratory wearing the Tactile Situation Awareness System (TSAS) vest. The NRC Institute for Aerospace Research (NRC-IAR) and Defence R&D Canada-Toronto (DRDC Toronto) are evaluating the U.S. Navy-developed Tactile Situation Awareness System (TSAS) that helps pilots maintain spatial orientation in the absence of visual cues. The technology uses tactile stimulators ("tactors") embedded in a pilot's vest to provide continuous, intuitive information about spatial orientation. Initial tests elsewhere suggest that the TSAS reduces pilot workload and increases flight safety by eliminating the need to scan instruments when flying in degraded visual conditions.

The NRC-IAR experimental helicopter (Bell 212). Flight tests using the TSAS are now underway at NRC-IAR, using its two experimental helicopters, a Bell 205 and a Bell 412. Sion Jennings, NRC-IAR's expert in pilot-vehicle interfaces, said, "We're providing flight-testing expertise in degraded visual environments and helping the U.S. Navy integrate the vest with the helicopter sensors and control systems. We're also working with them to improve the TSAS position-keeping algorithms."

Pilots experience spatial disorientation while flying in clouds or at night. They can lose their orientation because the inner ear and skin-muscle-joint senses (eg. touch) give false information about the direction down. The only way to determine their orientation is by looking at the horizon or the aircraft's instruments. In the few seconds when a pilot has to look away from the instruments, spatial disorientation can set in and create an opportunity for the aircraft to drift away from level flight towards an accident. The problem is increasing with the introduction of night vision goggles and other new technologies that enable pilots to operate in conditions where they are more likely to experience such disorientation.

To improve matters, Captain Angus Rupert, Director of Spatial Orientation Systems at the U.S. Naval Aerospace Medical Research Laboratory, developed the TSAS to provide orientation information through the sense of touch. The system consists of a matrix of tactors sewn into the front, back and sides of an air-cooling vest originally developed by DRDC for pilots to wear during the 1991 Gulf War. These tactors produce a stimulus that moves around the torso in the same direction that the aircraft is moving, giving the pilots another indication of their position. The system is intuitive, requiring only a few minutes of training.

The current experiment was arranged through the Air Standardization Coordinating Committee (ASCC), an international organization that helps the air forces of its member nations fight side-by-side in joint and combined operations. Dr. Bob Cheung, scientist and specialist in spatial disorientation at DRDC Toronto's Aerospace Life Support Section, said, "By collaborating, defence departments can stretch their research funding. This allows us to develop the product and improve disorientation countermeasures for all ASCC nations."

The TSAS technology has other potential applications. It could improve flight crew coordination by providing the same information to everyone at the same time. Control of an aircraft during emergency situations such as smoke in the cockpit, laser incapacitation, or instrument failure, would also be easier. The system could also help ground pilots control unmanned airborne vehicles (UAVs). In space, the TSAS could help astronauts maintain spatial orientation during extra-vehicular activities by creating an artificial reference point for 'down' and, on the ground, it could help the elderly avoid injuries due to falls by providing feedback on their balance as they walk. Finally, it could help the entertainment industry develop better video games.

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