University of North Dakota researchers developed Smartsealz, a patent-pending wearable technology that can alert pilots who are inattentive or are affected by fatigue or hypoxia. It attaches to a pilot’s headset and vibrates during deviations, explained assistant aviation professor Nick Wilson.
He developed the “augmented reality” concept with Assistant Professor of Engineering Kouhyar Tavakolian to combat what they called "pilot task saturation." Wilson theorized, "As long as pilots are already wearing a headset, why not use it as a safety tool?” The technology works alongside auditory and visual alerts that are already familiar to most pilots, he noted.
A stick-shaker concept buzzes a pilot’s head to get his or her attention through the use of sensors and electronics that are embedded into aviation headset earcups. For example, a pilot exhibiting fatigue would receive gentle tactile pulses through their headset as “sort of a highway rumble strip concept” that alerts them to perform corrections.
He said the device would be especially helpful to pilots "experiencing very low visual references" common to night flying and in instrument conditions.
Cardiac and cognitive functions can be monitored by electrocardiogram and other sensors placed inside the earcups. Externally mounted instruments include an accelerometer, an altimeter, and other devices. The combination allows an accurate readout of the aircraft’s spatial orientation, and a pilot receives the physical notices when pre-set flight tolerances are exceeded.
An off-course heading, an unexpected altitude deviation, or terrain and traffic proximity could trigger warnings, Wilson told AOPA. The team's "near-term deliverable" is traffic via Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) feedback into a headset. The same tactile technology and physiological monitoring could be adapted to alert a pilot experiencing the lack of oxygen saturation known as hypoxia.
"Just as you would engage an altitude mode on an autopilot, a sensor records barometric altitude," he explained. "When it's programmed for high sensitivity—for example during IFR work—the tolerances are plus-or-minus 50 feet. However, if you are flying in visual conditions or in high turbulence common during an airmet Tango, the range can be set for plus-or-minus 150 feet."
When pilots deviate from an intended altitude "it’s more precise than your CFI and it’s going to start alerting" immediately, he explained. A series of "intuitive beeps from high to low mean a descent is in order" while the opposite—audible pitches from low to high—indicate a climb should be initiated. "The feedback we provide is customized for what we want you to do."
Teams of aviation and engineering students worked together to test Smartsealz prototypes in general aviation aircraft cockpits. Wilson noted that UND researchers are currently collaborating with a "large aerospace firm" to fine-tune the product. He said the goal was to increase aviation safety margins using technology "that has the pilot’s back."