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Space researchers developing tool to help disoriented pilots
Date:11/13/2008

HOUSTON (Nov. 13, 2008) -- Not knowing which way is up can have deadly consequences for pilots. This confusion of the senses, called spatial disorientation, is responsible for up to 10 percent of general aviation accidents in the United States, with 90 percent of these being fatal, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

Although there have been no spatial disorientation accidents in space, it is a major concern for astronaut pilots. A National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI) study is tackling the issue by developing a tool that will assist pilots in real-time to overcome spatial disorientation.

Project leader Ron Small said the first step is to understand the factors leading to spatial disorientation, which tends to occur in poor visibility conditions. The root cause, though, is physiology.

"Humans are notoriously bad at figuring out their orientation when flying because we did not evolve in a flight environment, in contrast with birds," said Small, a member of NSBRI's Sensorimotor Adaptation Team. "It is worse in a spacecraft because the vehicle can move side to side, up and down, and rotate in all directions."

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.

"It is really important that the system alert pilots in real-time," said Small, a principal system engineer at Alion Science and Technology Corp., in Boulder, Colo. "We're not doing the pilot any good if we can only give advice after the fact."

Small is working closely with co-investigator Dr. Charles Oman, who is NSBRI's Sensori
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Contact: Brad Thomas
rbthomas@bcm.edu
713-798-7595
National Space Biomedical Research Institute
Source:Eurekalert

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