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Massive 270,000-pound aeromedical device comes to Dayton

A massive $19 million aerospace medical experimental device that will research spatial disorientation in pilots flying planes and motion sickness in sailors at sea was “commissioned” Friday at the Naval Medical Research Unit in Dayton.

The Disorientation Research Device, as the 420,000-pound piece of equipment is called, was originally scheduled to start operations in 2011, but technical delays on the unique device delayed its start-up until now, researchers said.

The device is one of only two in the world, said Richard Arnold, director of aeromedical research at the facility at Wright-Patterson. “It’s a one of a kind device,” he said.

The “commissioning” took place during the first-ever Navy Week in Dayton.

At the center of the massive device is a capsule that up to two people can fit inside. It spins, gyrates and moves back and forth along a spinning, horizontal track.

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“It’s quite disorienting to be in because once we seal you up the capsule itself is light tight,” Cmdr. Richard Folga, a Navy aerospace physiologist who has ridden inside the device.

“When you don’t have an outside visual world, it’s very hard to tell if they’re lifting me or twisting me or spinning me and I just ask them, ‘So what am I doing now?’”

The moving piece of equipment weighs about 270,000 pounds, researchers said. “It’s quite the spectacle to see it move inside the room,” Folga said.

Discovering more about what causes and what can counter spatial disorientation will be a key part of researchers’ studies.

“I think spatial disorientation is far and away the number one safety concern because of its role in mishaps,” Arnold said.

The capsule can be reconfigured to mimic a plane, ship or ground-based transportation, among a wide variety of scenarios of how it might be used in research, officials said.

The Navy unit also has researched the effects of hypoxia in pilots, the effectiveness of night vision goggles, and developed computerized color vision testing to replace the more familiar color dot tests.

Navy researchers also update aircrew selection tests, including for drone operators. “We’re collaborating quite closely with the Air Force on that,” Arnold said.

Researchers have expanded their focus beyond aviation. The unit has a years-long study in progress of the effects of sand and open burn pits on troops, a joint study with the Army and Air Force.

“We’re all about the the exposure that our troops and our people in uniform face,” said Michael Gargas, director of environmental health effects. “They work in some very unusual environments.”

The unit also has studied the effects of the submarine atmospheres on women, who once were not allowed to serve on the underwater naval vessels but joined crews beginning in 2011.

Original atmospheric standards were set for men. Studies resulted in recommendations for changes to accommodate women, he said.

“Those things hadn’t been looked at carefully because they didn’t think they’d ever put women on subs,” he said. “Now, there’s quite a few women out there.”

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