ORLANDO, Fla., March 23 (UPI) -- Researchers with the U.S. Army and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida have developed a vest that vibrates to warn disoriented pilots and help prevent aviation accidents.
Although Embry-Riddle received $203,000 in grant money to test the vest, faculty members said they believed the main benefit was enhanced learning with new technology.
"The human sense of balance and location aren't designed to comprehend and adapt to the conditions pilots encounter in airspace. It's dangerous, and this vest is a good countermeasure," said Jonathan French, professor at Embry-Riddle.
French also serves as research director at the Daytona Beach campus for the school's Department of Human Factors and Behavioral Neurobiology, which focuses on how humans interact with technology.
The vest has been used in limited military applications in the United States and Australia. After rounds of testing, researchers now seek interest in commercial production.
According to the Federal Aviation Administration, at least 10 percent of aviation accidents are due to pilot spatial disorientation. Ninety percent of those are fatal, and the proportion of disorientation crashes is higher for small craft.
Helicopters and airplanes have many warning lights, audio alerts and even tactile alerts like the vibrations in the vest that's been tested at Embry-Riddle. But the number of alerts can be overwhelming, French said, while the trouble is actually physiological -- located in the inner ear, or vestibular system.
The vest has a series of vibrating points up and down and around the torso called a Tactile Situation Awareness System.
If the aircraft's systems detect a roll to the left, the vest vibrates on the left, with an increasing number of vibration points for harder rolls. Such an instant cue gives a pilot -- even a sleepy or impaired pilot -- a chance to respond quickly. French said pilots react more slowly to warning lights or sounds than to tactile alerts by up to 30 seconds.
The inventor of the vest, physiologist Angus Rupert, began work on early concepts in 1989. At that time, he said, "people looked at spatial disorientation as a weakness of the pilot."
He has worked for military research institutes and NASA over the years, but he never sought a patent.
"I never patented it. In fact, I published it widely to prevent anyone from patenting it, in the hope that it would be accepted by the aviation community," Rupert said. He said he's more hopeful than ever that the vest will be embraced because of attention given to the crash that killed basketball star Kobe Bryant on Jan. 26 near Los Angeles.
French led an effort to test the vest over the past year at Embry-Riddle, which showed that student pilots could learn within four hours to intuitively respond to the warnings the vest was giving. Student testing was done at Embry-Riddle using simulators, virtual reality and actual flights.
The official cause of many celebrity pilot deaths, such as John F. Kennedy Jr.'s crash in 1999 near Martha's Vineyard, Mass., has been spatial disorientation.
Foggy conditions like those during the Bryant crash often lead to pilot disorientation, said Randy Waldman, a helicopter flight instructor based in that city.
"Too many accidents like that happen every year. I would welcome any new tools that help pilots overcome disorientation," Waldman said. "It's a very spooky feeling. Your body thinks you're going up when you're going down and to the left."
One of the students involved in testing the vests, Qian Hong Liu, 23, of China, said she has learned something new almost every time she's tried the vest. She's also interviewed other flight students after they learn to respond to the vest.
"I'm happy to be doing something that will improve aviation safety," Liu said.