Safer Skies: Real Time Hypoxia Monitoring for Pilots

Safer Skies: Real Time Hypoxia Monitoring for Pilots

By Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering Brian Bradke, PhD

Norwich engineering student Kevin Taylor ’17 spent the summer working on a new system for improving safety and efficacy of fighter pilots. The challenge: to devise a system for monitoring blood oxygenation in fighter pilots. But, he had to do it without interfacing with the aircraft systems, and the device had to be completely self-contained, without causing any interference or discomfort to the pilot. Taylor, along with his research advisor, Dr. Brian Bradke, an Asst. Professor of Mechanical Engineering and an Air Guard F-16 instructor pilot, devised and built a system using a revolutionary technology originally conceived for use in the trauma ward. After bench-top trials in the lab at Norwich, they traveled to Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., where they got to test the efficacy of the system on pilots and physiologists at the world’s premier F-35 training base.

Currently, the USAF trains pilots to recognize their hypoxia symptoms by putting them in an altitude chamber and simulating atmospheric conditions at 25,000 feet. Once the pilot experiences symptoms, which may include numbness, confusion, giddiness, blurry vision or lethargy, they initiate 100% oxygen flow from the aircraft or directly from an emergency oxygen reserve. Because aircraft and pilots are not equipped to measure pulse oximetry, and since each pilot experiences hypoxia differently, it is imperative that pilots learn to self-diagnose hypoxia and initiate recovery procedures before becoming incapacitated. There is no backup system to alert the pilot of impending hypoxic condition, and once the pilot is incapacitated, the outcome is always the same. That is what Taylor hopes to change.

Despite physiological requalification training every five years, a number of fatal accidents attributed to hypoxia have occurred throughout the years.   Had the pilots been outfitted with a passive oxygenation monitoring system, they might still be with us today.

“In our opinion, incapacitation due to hypoxia is a preventable accident,” said Taylor, a mechanical engineering senior and USAF pilot candidate.  “We think this system may ultimately save a multi-million dollar asset.  But more importantly, it may be the difference between a pilot going home to their family at night or a folded American flag at Arlington.”

Bradke and Taylor (pictured above) will present their findings to the Aerospace Medical Association at their annual meeting this spring.