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Friday, December 1, 2017

This Spacesuit Comes with a “Take Me Home” Button

Astronauts, firefighters, skydivers and others could benefit from clothing equipped with sensors and other smart tech

CAMBRIDGE, MA—In the zero-gravity environment of space, astronauts can become confused, disoriented and even a little queasy. In such a state, a routine spacewalk quickly can turn dangerous. For an astronaut unable to get his bearings, operating a jetpack and making it back to safety can be a real challenge.

“Without a fail-proof way to return to the spacecraft, an astronaut is at risk of the worst-case scenario:  lost in space,” said Kevin Duda, a space systems engineer at Draper. Duda has studied astronauts and their habitat onboard the International Space Station. He and his colleagues recently filed a patent for a self-return system to ensure astronauts are safe, even if no other astronaut can rescue them. 

Draper’s director of space systems, Séamus Tuohy, said the return-home technology is an advance in spacesuits that is long overdue. “The current spacesuit features no automatic navigation solution—it is purely manual—and that could present a challenge to our astronauts if they are in an emergency.”

To design a successful self-return spacesuit, Draper engineers had to overcome a host of challenges. The self-return system had to be capable of determining a precise location in a harsh space environment where GPS is unavailable. It had to compute an optimal return trajectory that accounts for time, oxygen consumption, safety and clearance requirements, and it had to be able to guide a disoriented and possibly unconscious astronaut effectively to safety. 

“Giving astronauts a sense of direction and orientation in space is a challenge because there is no gravity and no easy way to determine which way is up and down,” said Duda. “Our technology improves mission success in space by keeping the crew safe.” 

The system can operate the jet pack autonomously or give the astronaut directions with a combination of visual, auditory and sensory cues through a web of sensors and a helmet visor display. If something were to happen during a spacewalk (also known as an Extravehicular Activity, or EVA) the self-return system can be initiated by the astronaut, a space station crewmember or mission control.

Draper’s “take me home” system features options. According to the patent application, the spacesuit’s sensors can be configured to monitor movement, acceleration and relative position of the crewmember to a fixed object, such as an accompanying orbiting spacecraft. The navigation, guidance and control modules can also accommodate various scenarios. For instance, the navigation module can be configured using GPS, vision-aided navigation or a star-tracker system. To improve the astronaut’s positioning and orientation, Draper has developed software that fuses data from vision-based and inertial navigation systems and benefits from the advantages of both sensing approaches.

The current research into spacesuits, which was funded by NASA, is part of Draper’s growing human-centered solution portfolio. The portfolio includes a wearable technology that helps the wearer recognize more data from their surroundings and understand them faster. Applications in the design of navigation systems like Draper’s “take me home” system could serve as an added safety measure for first responders and firefighters as they navigate smoke-filled rooms, skydivers hurtling toward Earth and scuba divers who might become disoriented in deep water.

NASA astronauts will be able to find their way back to the spacecraft more easily with the help of a self-return system developed by Draper. (Photo: NASA)
Capabilities Used
Positioning, Navigation & Timing (PNT)

Draper develops novel PN&T solutions by combining precision instrumentation, advanced hardware technology, comprehensive algorithm and software development skills, and unique infrastructure and test resources to deploy system solutions. The scope of these efforts generally focuses on guidance, navigation, and control GN&C-related needs, ranging from highly accurate, inertial solutions for (ICBMs) and inertial/stellar solutions for SLBMs, to integrated Inertial Navigation System(INS)/GPS solutions for gun-fired munitions, to multisensor configurations for soldier navigation in GPS-challenged environments. Emerging technologies under development that leverage and advance commercial technology offerings include celestial navigation (compact star cameras), inertial navigation (MEMS, cold atom sensors), precision time transfer (precision optics, chip-scale atomic clocks) and vision-based navigation (cell phone cameras, combinatorial signal processing algorithms).

Autonomous Systems

Draper combines mission planning, PN&T, situational awareness, and novel GN&C designs to develop and deploy autonomous platforms for ground, air, sea and undersea needs. These systems range in complexity from human-in-the-loop to systems that operate without any human intervention. The design of these systems generally involves decomposing the mission needs into sets of scenarios that result in trade studies that lead to an optimized solution with key performance requirements.  Draper continues to advance the field of autonomy through research in the areas of mission planning, sensing and perception, mobility, learning, real-time performance evaluation and human trust in autonomous systems.

Fault-Tolerant Systems

Draper has developed mission-critical fault-tolerant systems for more than four decades. These systems are deployed in space, air, and undersea platforms that require extremely high reliability to accomplish challenging missions. These solutions incorporate robust hardware and software partitioning to achieve fault detection, identification and reconfiguration. Physical redundancy or multiple, identical designs protect against random hardware failures and employ rigor in evaluating differences in computed results to achieve exact consensus, even in the presence of faults. The latest designs leverage cost-effective, multicore commercial processors to implement software-based redundancy management systems in compact single-board layouts that perform the key timing, communication, synchronization and voting algorithm functions needed to maintain seamless operation after one, two or three arbitrary faults of individual components.

Human-Centered Solutions

Draper has continued to advance the understanding and application of human-centered engineering to optimize the interaction and capabilities of the human’s ability to better understand, assimilate and convey information for critical decisions and tasks. Through its Human-Centered Solutions capability, Draper enables accomplishment of users’ most critical missions by seamlessly integrating technology into a user’s workflow. This work leverages human-computer interaction through emerging findings in applied psychophysiology and cognitive neuroscience. Draper has deep skills in the design, development, and deployment of systems to support cognition – for users seated at desks, on the move with mobile devices or maneuvering in the cockpit of vehicles – and collaboration across human-human and human-autonomous teams.

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