Being an astronaut sounds fun until you think about the situations that they have to live in. Lack of gravity and above all, scarcity of breathable air is not something a sensible person would like to plunge their life into. People do, and due to these people, the future of space exploration looks bright enough that humankind is considering making colonies on the moon or even the outer space.
For an astronaut in space, lack of gravity is not the only problem, moving around in the heavy spacesuits without bumping into objects is a mission in itself. The suit not only limits movements but it also restricts other senses like vision and sense. To make things easier for the astronauts, MIT’s Man Vehicle Lab creates haptic feedback wearables that warn the wearer of obstacles they may not see.
Videos of astronauts clumsily bumping here and there are amusing, but only when the time and air resources are infinite, which in the case of a space walk or an extravehicular activity are not. Jumping and bumping uses up precious time and valuable breathable air. To prevent happenings like these, professor Leia Stirling and graduate students at the MIT lab are coming up with different ways to assist astronaut movement within the limitations of the spacesuit.
The haptic feedback boots are one such project that uses built-in range-finding sensors that use haptic feedback to inform the user of the vicinity of an obstacle like a moon rock or an antenna. The vibrations begin slow but speed up as the obstacle nears.
“There’s a lot of different questions that we’re asking within the lab to help with different decisions that need to be made, ” explained Sterling. “This particular project looked at how can we potentially help someone navigate their environment and avoid obstacles at the same time?”
Detecting an object is not the only important factor, how the astronaut is informed of an obstacle is more important. A person while out in the space is dealing with a lot of data, and to make sense of all of it is not humanly possible. To make this data readable enough that it can be utilized to make decisions is important.
“The Man Vehicle Lab is really interested in human-machine interactions. How do we enable the appropriate trust in those systems so that the person can use the information and make the right decision?”
The haptic feedback boots are nowhere near a product yet, but they are a fully functional prototype, that has been tested by members of the Mars Desert Research Society. The society maintains a facility in the Utah desert that mimics Mars-like conditions.