Washington, November 14 : American researchers at the National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI) are working on a system that will help astronaut pilots in real time to overcome the effects of spatial disorientation, the confusion of senses as to which way is up that often leads to fatal aviation accidents.
Ron Small, a member of the NSBRI Sensorimotor Adaptation Team, says that such a system may also prove beneficial for military, general aviation, and helicopter pilots. Spatial disorientation accidents has been a major concern for astronaut pilots, though such a mishap in space has not been reported to date.
Small has revealed that the NSBRI has taken up the research project with a view to creating a tool that will assist pilots to overcome spatial disorientation.
The researcher says that the first step is to understand the factors leading to spatial disorientation, which tends to occur in poor visibility conditions.
"Humans are notoriously bad at figuring out their orientation when flying because we did not evolve in a flight environment, in contrast with birds. It is worse in a spacecraft because the vehicle can move side to side, up and down, and rotate in all directions," the researcher adds.
Small has revealed that their study will involve specially designed software that monitors the flight of the vehicle - speed, heading, pitch and altitude - and the actions of the pilot.
According to the team, their system would involve audio and visual cues to alert pilots of problems before things get out of hand.
The researchers are also contemplating testing a vest with pager-like vibrators distributed throughout, which 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. We're not doing the pilot any good if we can only give advice after the fact," said Small, a principal system engineer at Alion Science and Technology Corp., in Boulder, Colorado.
With a view to better understanding the problems facing astronauts, the researchers are building on information from Small's previous studies of spatial disorientation for the U.S. military, and analysing data from aircraft accidents and space missions.
They have tested the software's ability to detect spatial disorientation incidents, and are currently trying to deeply understand the differences in craft movement in the atmosphere and in space.
The investigators will also focus on how the human inner ear, which helps control the sense of orientation, functions in both environments.