Sometimes, good ideas materialize in some very unlikely places. Take spatial perception for instance. Navy Captain Angus Rupert took a recreational parachute jump back in the 70's, and in his free-fall toward the ground realized that even while tumbling he could tell the direction of down just by his sense of touch as the wind pushed against him. Twenty years later, Angus made that idea a reality and incidentally developed a product to help pilots combat spatial disorientation in flight.
The Tactile Situational Awareness System (TSAS) is a template of actuators built into a flight vest. The vest creates vibrations on the pilot's torso, and is mapped to points in the environment to confirm the correct information for the pilot on pitch, roll, airspeed and altitude. If the pilot banks to the right, the vibrations are felt on his right side. If he pitches sharply to the left, he feels them on his left.
"We orient ourselves by vision, the inner ear, and our somatosensory - or sense-of-touch - system," says Rupert. "If it's pitch dark, vision isn't going to help, and if centrifugal forces are such that we think them gravitational forces, then both our vestibular and somatosensory system have failed us, too, in that they have provided false information."
"Severe disorientation can put a pilot very swiftly in an unrecoverable situation," says Dr. David Street, ONR program manager for the TSAS vest. "This is exactly what we need to prevent."
Other uses for the vest are target or threat location in hostile situations, for creating an 'artificial down' in spacecraft (where in weightlessness astronauts also become disoriented), and in prosthetics where persons with severe balance disorders must find a way to stay upright. The TSAS is currently under development at the Naval Aerospace Medical Research Laboratory in Florida. Rupert is a Navy Flight Surgeon assigned to NASA's Johnson Space Center. ONR is looking at providing further funding for an underwater application of the vest.