New orientation assistant to help prevent astronauts getting lost in space

Which way is up? Just feel the vibrations, man

Spatial disorientation among pilots led to 101 deaths, 65 lost aircraft and $2.32 billion of damages in the US Airforce between 1993 and 2013, according to research. The problem also hits astronauts, whose senses can be bamboozled when they are severed from the familiar pull of Earth's gravity.

Yet a new approach to providing feedback on bodily orientation via small vibrating devices on the skin has proved effective with experimental subjects in simulated zero-gravity environments. The so-called vibrotactors, combined with specialized training, help to improve the subjects' ability to fight spatial disorientation according to research which could help astronauts find their orientation when they can no longer rely on their other senses.

"Long duration spaceflight will cause many physiological and psychological stressors which will make astronauts very susceptible to spatial disorientation," said Vivekanand Vimal, the lead researcher. "When disoriented, an astronaut will no longer be able to rely on their own internal sensors which they have depended on for their whole lives."

Researchers at Brandeis University, Massachusetts, used a multi-axis rotation device (MARS) — a sort of rotating chair — they programmed to act like an unstable upside-down pendulum. All participants were given a blindfold, earplugs, and white noise to listen to. Those with vibrotactors had four strapped to each arm, which would buzz when they moved away from the balance point. Each participant took part in 40 trials, aiming to keep the rotation device as close to the balance point as possible.

The study, published in journal Frontiers in Psychology, split subjects into a group using vibrotactors, a groups receiving training, and a group both using the vibrotactor and receiving training.

"We conclude that after appropriate training, vibrotactile orientation feedback augments dynamic spatial orientation and does not lead to any negative dependence," the researchers found.

As humans endeavor to explore further into our solar system, boffins are trying to improve their chances of survival. Last year, space dietitians discovered that increasing fruits, vegetables, and fish in the diets of astronauts can provide multiple health and performance outcomes. ®

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