New Tech Helps Make Fighter Pilots Safer

If you’ve seen this summer’s biggest blockbuster, Top Gun: Maverick, the long-awaited sequel to the 1986 film, Top Gun, then you got a Hollywood glimpse of how difficult a critical mission can be on pilot wellness in flight. Now imagine how important that is in the real world.

An Airman wears the Integrated Cockpit Sensing system during first centrifuge test.

Improving pilot safety and performance is a top priority for the Department of Defense (DoD), and to address that need, Ball Aerospace’s Advanced Technology & Information Solutions (ATIS) has partnered with the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) to develop the Integrated Cockpit Sensing (ICS) system – a real-time monitoring system that provides analysis of pilot health, the cabin environment and life support systems in flight.

The combination of high G-forces, altitude and mission tasking can be hazardous for pilots in both training and combat situations, especially as aircraft continue to reach new levels of performance, which can lead to what’s known as Unexplained Physiological Episodes (UPE). Each UPE is unique to the aircraft and environment, but a typical UPE in a pilot can include difficulty breathing, tingling, dizziness, a lack of concentration and a risk of passing out, even after all safety regulators had been deployed. During FY2013-2020, non-combat aviation incidents, including UPE, resulted in 244 lives lost, 186 lost aircraft and $11.6 billion lost.


The system is designed to help detect, mitigate and provide insight into in-flight physiological episodes that adversely impact the physical and cognitive abilities of pilots, risking their ability to return home safely. The ICS system can monitor the following:



“The ICS system is the next step. By leveraging developments that came out of previous DoD efforts where these individual sensor elements were developed and flight tested, our team enabled the individual elements to work together to provide a bigger, better picture,” said Ethan Blackford, ICS program manager at Ball Aerospace. “By tying together all the sensors, we get a comprehensive picture of the dynamic effects of flight on the pilot and how the life support system is supporting the pilot.”


The centrifuge where the Integrated Cockpit Sensing system was tested.

While in flight, data from the sensors are analyzed in real-time. Pilots are alerted if a physiological episode occurs or if conditions may lead to such an event. In addition to real-time monitoring, the data is recorded and uploaded to a central repository where it is available for post-flight analysis.

By uncovering and studying the root causes of UPEs, this integrated sensor suite will improve training, help pilots make better decisions and provide the insight to develop enhanced life support systems.

“We are leveraging the knowledge and skills of our team, as well as decades of experience supporting Airman wellness, to develop this important technology that will help explain the previously unexplainable,” Blackford said.