July 27, 2018

AF tests in-flight respiratory monitoring

Shireen Bedi
Falls Church, Va.

A U.S. Air Force Physiology technician temporarily assigned to the 19th Aerospace Medicine Squadron’s High Altitude Airdrop Mission Support unit buckles his oxygen mask as he prepares for a High Altitude, Low Open parachute jump from a C-130 Hercules at Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark., Nov. 16, 2016.

To lower risks of in-flight breathing issues and protect the health and performance of aircrew, Air Force researchers rely on innovative technology to deliver advanced respiratory monitoring, without the added weight.

Researchers with the 711th Human Performance Wing at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, are working with a private company, Cobham, to develop VigilOX, an advanced sensor system designed for continuous in-flight measurement of aircrew breathing.

“This sensor system measures the concentration of oxygen, breathing gas flow, pressure, temperature, and humidity to the pilot,” said Dr. David Burch, a research biomedical engineer and the medical technology solutions team lead for the En Route Care Medical Technology Solutions Research Group, 711th HPW.
“These measures give us a better insight on the pilot’s respiratory patterns and how well life support systems are functioning.”

What makes this sensor system beneficial for in-flight monitoring is the seamlessly integration into the aircrew flight equipment itself. Because of this, aircrew have access to advanced monitoring capabilities while also factoring in weight and equipment limitations.

“Having the sensor system integrated into the AFE allows us to really understand the pilot’s breathing patterns, energy demands, pulmonary function, and if the pilot is potentially exposed to anything that could degrade performance during combat,” said Burch.

According to Burch, this system is an improvement over previous technologies that only looked at oxygen concentration and did not provide enough information to assess the performance of the aircraft’s life support system. This is vital when it comes to preventing negative in-flight respiratory events.

“Looking at only oxygen concentration does not tell us whether the pilots received adequate flow and pressure,” said Burch. “More importantly, older technologies did not measure what the pilot was exhaling, which is important to prevent the occurrence of hypoxia and hypocapnia. These are potentially dangerous events caused by changes in oxygen and carbon dioxide levels.”

The device is currently undergoing tests by Burch and his team at Brooke Army Medical Center, Texas, to ensure it meets the specification and design parameters for the Air Force.

“There are unique Air Force needs that are not going to be met by commercial development for general clinical use,” said Burch. “Medical devices are usually designed for the stable conditions of a clinic. With aerospace medicine, you throw that all out the window. You will have rapid temperature changes, gravity forces up to nine times Earth gravity, and altitude changes. From a device development standpoint, that puts a lot of strain on the designing systems to have them operate across those conditions.”

Dr. James Christensen, product line lead for Airman Sensing and Assessment, from the 711 HPW’s Airman Systems Directorate, explains that because of those unique requirements, medical devices go through rigorous simulated operational conditions and are thoroughly vetted before they get in the hands of the user.

Having been tested on the T-6A, T-45, F-18, and F-15 aircrafts, the VigilOX sensor system shows potential promise in improving monitoring capabilities and keeping aircrew safe.

“For me, the most exciting thing is getting to see it in the hands of Air Force operational users, and getting this advanced sensor system into routine use to where it can improve safety and performance,” said Christensen.

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