DAYTON, Ohio, Oct. 28 (UPI) -- Researchers with the U.S. Air Force may have found a way to detect hypoxia in pilots in real-time during flights by measuring volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, in their breath, according to a new study.
Hypoxia is a deficiency of oxygen reaching the tissues. A sudden loss of cabin pressure, speeding up the lack of oxygen flowing through the body, could result in a pilot losing consciousness before being able to take actions in the cockpit for both passengers and to keep the plane in the air.
Researchers at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base think an automatic system may be able to detect hypoxia based on pilot's breath, allowing either the pilot or systems on the plane to take action.
"Despite the myriad of advances in aerospace technology, many modern, high-performance aircraft still rely on the pilot to recognize the symptoms of hypoxia in order to initiate appropriate procedures in the event of a malfunction," said Dr. Claude Grigsby, a technical advisor in the Human Signatures Branch in the 711th Human Performance Wing, in a press release. "This research provides the basis for both the utility of exhaled breath monitoring to monitor for hypoxia as well as targets for future solid state senor development."
The researchers worked with eight pilots, simulating a "fairly standard" hypoxic event while in flight. The volunteer participants were exposed to five minutes of reduced oxygen levels to simulate higher altitudes, and then were given five minutes of oxygen "recovery," a typical in-flight response to the condition.
For each of the participants, VOC levels were measured before and after the simulated hypoxia and recovery, as well as every minute during the simulations. Although the results showed VOC levels drop after a hypoxic event, researchers are unsure how this works.
"We are working to better understand hypoxic episodes mechanistically to validate our findings and to improve our non-invasive chemical sensing platforms," said Dr. Sean Harshman, a research scientist in the 711th Human Performance Wing at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. "Our future and ongoing studies seek to confirm the data presented in this manuscript, develop a flight worthy chemical sensor, and begin further mechanistic studies of respiratory hypoxia."
The study is published in the Journal of Breath Research.