Researchers at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University have tested the use of a vibrating vest on pilots to combat the potentially fatal problem of flight deck disorientation.
Spatial disorientation in flight occurs when what pilots feel clashes with reality — when they believe they’re flying upward but their plane is actually headed toward the ground, for example.
Dr. Braden McGrath, research professor in Embry-Riddle’s Department of Human Factors and Behavioral Neurobiology, believes the issue lies in the fact that all the current warnings in the flight desk – blinking lights, heads-up displays and a variety of others – are all visual.
“Tactile cueing keeps pilots aware: It gives them the right information at the right time and in the right modality,” said McGrath. “It keeps them in the loop.”
Many pilots who find their vision obstructed or attention distracted are not in the loop, however, and they might not even realize it.
That’s where the Tactile Situation Awareness System (TSAS) comes in — a device invented by Dr. Angus Rupert of the U.S. Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory that vibrates at different locations and intensities along a pilot’s torso, alerting him or her to irregularities in an aircraft’s orientation.
If a plane is rolling slightly left, for instance, the vest will lightly rumble on the pilot’s left side, and it will continue to do so until the roll is corrected.
By utilizing vibration, the vest takes visuals and even intellectual processing out of the equation. Pilots don’t need to be able to see or read controls. They only need four hours of training, and then they’re fluent.
Tactile processing takes place at a more reflexive, “midbrain level,” Rupert said. “The goal is to align the information in the cockpit with the way we take in information on Earth.”