Flying blind

Seeing the activation of tactors on screen as I feel them through the suit.Of all the gizmos I’ve tried in my recent research, the tactile suit was the most exciting. Pilots can become disoriented because of poor or confusing visual feedback conflicting with other cues, a phenomenon that accounts for a significant proportion (up to 10%) of air accidents. The tactile suit is intended to help by letting the pilot feel their orientation through their body rather than trusting their vestibular (inner ear) or visual systems.

The version I used consisted of a set of three vibrating buzzers (tactors) on each arm and four each on the chest and back. (Additional leg tactors—shown on the screen in the picture—had been disabled in the version I used). It works as follows. As the plane tilts to the right, the right wrist starts to vibrate as it tilts more, the elbow comes in too, then the shoulder. As the plane tilts forwards, the top two chest tactors come in, then the lower as the dive becomes more extreme. The back tactors become active when the plane starts to climb.

Flying blind, using the tactors as the only cue to feel my way to level flying.Apart from commercial flights, I have had quite limited experience of flying as a passenger and almost no experience of being a pilot (in a simulator or otherwise). I was not, therefore, in any way surprised that I was, well, pretty crap at trying to use some of the Operator Performance Lab flight simulators. However, this was not true while using the tactile suit. When I could feel my orientation, I was much better able to steer. So much so that the researchers were able to put me into an awkward and dangerous orientation (one that most pilots have great difficulty finding their way out of) and I was able to find my way to level flying easily. With my eyes shut.

What was particularly impressive about this is that it’s not what this particular suit was designed for: it was meant to warn the pilot, not offer feedback for control. However, Captain Angus Rupert who invented the original idea, almost ten years ago, has now developed the technology to the point where pilots really can use it to tell which way is up... Field trials show pilot improvement whether visual conditions are good or poor.

My personal experience was that the device allows you to ‘feel’ space in a way that is otherwise impossible, but that nevertheless feels both incredibly natural and physical. This physicality is, I think, the key to the success of the technology.

Photo, top: Seeing the activation of tactors on screen as I feel them through the suit.

Photo, bottom: Flying blind, using the tactors as the only cue to feel my way to level flying.

Originally posted on Brains and Machines.