Credit: NASA

They are dubbed “vibrotactile boots.”

New work at Draper Labs in Cambridge, Massachusetts makes use of sensors at the front of the boot to detect obstacles and alert the user through a combination of visual signals and vibrations applied to the feet.

Alison Gibson of Draper says her “booted” system of knowing the position of your legs on Mars can be challenging while wearing a bulky pressurized suit. Also, altered gravity high-stepping across Mars certainly doesn’t help.

Footnote: task at hand

According to Andrea Webb of Draper, “the system allows astronauts to focus on the task at hand instead of watching the ground,” she said in a press statement.

Solid footing on Mars can be a real challenge, where reduced gravity and the constraints of a bulky pressured suit limit sensory feedback.

Credit: Dan Durda

Also, the protective helmet further limits an astronaut’s peripheral vision, forcing space explorers to lean forward and look down to see tripping hazards. In this environment, a punctured suit or damaged life support system can be fatal.

New approach

Point is, Draper researchers studied this problem and developed a new approach for how astronauts see and feel the terrain around them. By equipping a special boot with built-in sensors and tiny haptic motors that vibrate, the research team aims to give astronauts the information they need to stay safe.

“The boots have built-in sensors and vibration motors, all connected to a small microcontroller that processes the sensor data and determines which cue to send to the user,” says Alison Gibson, a Draper Fellow and former graduate student in MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

Credit: Bob Sauls – XP4D/Explore Mars, Inc. (used with permission)

Vibratory feedback

Gibson further advises that the front of each boot contains an ultrasonic range-finder, a proximity sensor and a six degree-of-freedom Inertial Measurement Unit. The vibratory feedback delivered to the feet is supplemented with an augmented reality visual display that also indicates the location and proximity of approaching obstacles.

Draper and MIT research in this area could have applications in the design of navigation systems for the visually impaired, and serve as an added safety measure for first responders and firefighters as they navigate smoke-filled rooms, according to the Draper press statement.

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