Embry-Riddle researchers are using a Tactile Situation Awareness System (TSAS) to combat flight deck disorientation. Four hours of training – that’s all it takes to attack the problem of spatial disorientation among pilots, and to save their lives, according to Dr. Braden McGrath, research professor in Embry-Riddle’s Department of Human Factors and Behavioral Neurobiology.

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. Blinking lights, heads-up displays and a variety of other safety controls are already available in the flight deck to counteract this occurrence, but those features are all visual, said McGrath, who conducted his doctoral thesis on this topic and believes that the complete solution lies in also using another of our five senses: touch.

“Tactile cueing keeps pilots aware: It gives them the right information at the right time and in the right modality,” he said. “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 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.

TSAS also works to address a problem that can affect any aviator at any experience level.

“The Air Force has never lost less than five pilots per year due to spatial disorientation,” he said. “They lost more than 150 aircraft and 150 pilots from the 1980s to the early 2000s.”

But TSAS, a fireproof garment with miniature tactile actuators sewn inside of it, can change all that. And graduate students are working hard to make sure it does.

Before pilots can utilize the haptic vest in the air, they need training – from grad students Tyson Richards and Qianhong “Echo” Liu.

Risks are eliminated in virtual worlds, however, and so before test subjects are ever equipped with tactile belts on the flight line, they go to the Aerospace Physiology Lab, strap on a 3-D headset and tactile belt, and learn to read the rumbles they feel pulsing up and down their sides every time the yoke on their simulator leans off-center.

Once pilots acclimate and can reorient using just signals from the tactile belt’s actuators, even with their eyes closed and after simulating mid-flight barrel rolls, they’re ready for the real world.

With an unobstructed pilot safely controlling the aircraft from the left seat, Richards and Liu set up their test subjects in the right seat and outfit them with a tactile belt. Just like in training, the goal is for the subject to use the belt’s tactile cues to prove that they understand where the horizon line is – even though most of tests are conducted at night, and in one of the five test scenarios, they wear either a blindfold or a pair of tinted goggles, simulating poor visual environments where spatial disorientation is most common. Afterward, Richards and Liu conduct post-flight interviews to compare the pilot’s perceptions to what they actually experienced.

“In the classroom, you just kind of hear about some of these things, but being able to see it in practical application – and actually do something about solving it – is different,” says Richards, who serves as an active-duty member of the U.S. Coast Guard. “Every single time we do these trials, there is always something unscripted. It’s always a challenge and you have to solve problems and come up with solutions to make it work.”