New Technology Aims to Track Hypoxia-Like Symptoms in Fighter Pilots


FARNBOROUGH, England -- A British company is teaming up with the Air Force to design a system that could assess and even treat hypoxia-like symptoms in pilots before they become a threat.

Executives with Cobham Plc said the company is in the early stages of development with a system that could monitor a pilot's breathing, metabolic and physiological state and more by means of unobtrusive sensors mounted onto the pilot's breathing hose and mask.

Rob Schaeffer, product director for environmental systems at Cobham, told that the product development was in response to a request for proposals from the U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.

Cobham already builds the on-board oxygen generation systems used in F/A-18E/F Super Hornets and other fighter aircraft.

The request for proposals follows a troubling series of incidents in recent years. In 2011, the Air Force grounded its fleet of F-22 Raptors in order to investigate a pattern of pilot blackouts and other hypoxia-like symptoms. The force ultimately installed automatic oxygen backups in the aircraft.

More recently, Breaking Defense reported an uptick in "physiological events" indicative of oxygen deprivation symptoms for Navy F/A-18 Hornet pilots over the last five years.

Schaeffer emphasized that the root causes of these problems is not known, and hypoxia is only a hypothesis. The system now under development, he said, could isolate the root causes and generate data to help researchers determine when the problem occurs and how best to fix it.

While the current model of the system is platform-agnostic, linking in to a pilot's breathing apparatus, Cobham is also evaluating a platform-specific design that would be built into the aircraft.

"If you have a sensor like this, what we'd like to do is integrate this into the aircraft and make this an automated backup oxygen system," said Stuart Buckley, Cobham's senior director of business development and sales.

Cobham plans to deliver airworthy hardware to the Air Force by April 2017 for testing according to the service's flight protocols that would demonstrate the sensors' ability to collect pilot data and download it at the end of flight.

While there is no formal agreement with the Navy regarding the project, Schaeffer said the service is aware of it.

"We have participated in many briefings with [U.S. Naval Air Systems Command] and the Office of Naval Research, and there is a high degree of interest," he said.

The final solution could analyze pilot health in flight far beyond oxygen levels: Schaeffer said the company was looking at building in electrocardiogram capability and assessing factors like Gs pulled, climbing altitude, temperature, humidity and pressure to isolate causes of hypoxia-like incidents in order to solve the problem.

"If I can help the government find the root cause, I've got a better chance to solve the problem," Buckley said.

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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