Air Force Research Lab advocates more sensors to monitor humans in aircraft

Air Force Research Laboratory discusses sensor development
Air Force and Navy officials listen to a briefing during the Physiological Episodes Mitigation Technology Summit and Industry Day in Dayton, Ohio. (Air Force Research Laboratory)

The physiological effects of military aircraft on humans cannot be underestimated, and military officials are seeking to more effectively monitor the interactions of humans with various aircraft systems.

At a recent event hosted by the  Air Force Research Laboratory’s 711th Human Performance Wing in Dayton, Ohio, over 150 participants from the Air Force, Navy and industry discussed the research and development of sensors that can gather physiological data from pilots before, during and after flight to help mitigate physiological episodes.

“Efforts surrounding this issue are really driven by the nature of the challenge,” said Brig. Gen. Gregor Leist, Air Force Physiological Episodes Action Team (PEAT) lead, during the conference. “It’s a safety-critical issue, and we need to throw everything we can at this and find the root, if there is a root, for the safety of our pilots.”

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Rear Adm. Fredrick “Lucky” Luchtman, Navy PEAT lead, added the Navy began seeing an increase in physiological episodes, starting in 2010. “We started looking at the aircraft, how it was performing, how the subsystems were performing.”

In response, the Navy spent a great deal of time instrumenting their aircraft to characterize the breathing systems and pressurization systems, Luchtman noted.

Similiarly, the Air Force started seeing an increase in various physiological episodes several years later, according to Leist. “What really drove a lot of the Air Force activities for this was the T-6 trainer and the steep rise in air breathing-associated physiological episodes.”

Since 2018, both the Navy and Air Force have utilized a Physiological Episodes Action Team to perform research and share data, using various sensors to collect data from the aircraft to ensure proper operation.

Luchtman said, “The hard part, the whole team has discovered, is understanding how the human system is utilizing those outputs. For example, the aircraft’s oxygen system. We can tell you very accurately what that aircraft’s system is producing—the oxygen content levels, the pressures, the flows. But even when we can see that the system is performing appropriately—producing the right amount of high-quality air that’s better than even liquid oxygen—but we still get a reported physiologic episode from a pilot… We have to ask, ‘What is going on?’”

For Luchtman, the situation cries out for more sensing data. “If the aircraft is giving the pilots what they need, then what is going on in the human? We just don’t have the sensors to accurately characterize what is going on there,” he said.

Upgrading aircraft sensing capabilities, particularly in the cockpit, will be a key challenge, according to Dr. James Christensen, AFRL team lead developing sensors for the Air Force’s Integrated Cockpit Sensing program.

“We are considering the needs of legacy platforms while also influencing early design of new aircraft to better accommodate sensing of the pilot’s physical state and ensure their ability to fly safely and accomplish the mission,” Christensen said.

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