It sounds like the stuff of nightmares: a sudden drop in cabin pressure on board your flight. This can lead to hypoxia &ndash a lack of oxygen – causing passengers and pilots to pass out. Now nervous flyers can breathe a little easier, thanks to a new device that warns pilots of the condition.
Although rare, sudden pressure drops do occasionally affect both military and commercial flights. One such event was thought to havein 2005, killing all 121 people on board.
Planes are equipped with oxygen-monitoring sensors, but that may not help if the crew are already affected by hypoxia, says, who specialises in aerospace medicine, or if they misinterpret the signals, as is thought to have occurred in the 2005 crash, says Daniel Rooney at the Institute of Aerospace Medicine in Cologne, Germany.
By the time these sensors alert a pilot to a drop in oxygen, it can already have had a major effect on their decision-making and awareness. And if the air pressure drops suddenly &ndash as can happen during military manoeuvres &ndash even pilots specially trained to spot hypoxia can have little time to do so before losing consciousness.
Now a team from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, has developed a real-time sensor to warn pilots of hypoxia. The work is part of a larger effort to monitor the physiology of military pilots, including aspects like stress or fatigue, in a non-invasive way, says team leader Claude Grigsby.
The sensor works by measuring levels of chemicals called volatile organic compounds present in exhaled breath. By testing the sensor on volunteers during a simulation in which oxygen levels were cut, the team was able to identify a set of VOCs signalling the onset of hypoxia. Continuous monitoring of breath for this set could alert a pilot to hypoxia in real time.
The team now aims to incorporate this technology into the standard military aircrew mask to continuously assess pilot safety, says Grigsby.
Pilot Patrick Smith, who runs the website, says the technology is likely to be more useful for private aviation than commercial airlines.
However, Grigsby says the idea of identifying biomarkers in breath could be applied to monitoring various aspects of health, such as fatigue, in commercial pilots too.
(Image credit: Anstock/Alamy Stock Photo)
This entry passed through the Full-Text RSS service – if this is your content and you’re reading it on someone else’s site, please read the FAQ at fivefilters.org/content-only/faq.php#publishers.