02 July 2014

Tactile Belt: "hands-free, eyes-free, and mind-free" Gear for Soldiers

Image Copyright: US Army

The Army is taking technology to the next level and tapping into our sense of touch with a new tactile belt experiment. With the new belt, soldiers can be directed without the platoon leader having to say a word.

The tactile belt incorporates “vibrotactile” technology. In other words, the belt surrounding the wearer’s body buzzes in response to a GPS marker, a squad leader making hand signals while wearing a special glove, or even a robot. The belt buzzes can be customized for various navigation strategies.  A buzz on the stomach can mean go straight.  A tremor on your back can mean turn around. The belt vibrating all over can mean to get down.

In a recent Army Research Laboratory (ARL) trial at Fort Benning, Georgia, groups of soldiers covered a 300-yard portion of a test course.  Those who wore the belt made it through faster and checked their navigation aides 1.2 times during the trek. Soldiers without the belt checked more than 17 times, on average.

Navigating visually requires a lot of brainpower.  Experts say the tactile belt changes the way soldiers take in information, trading visual cues for a vibration similar to a silenced phone.  Soldiers can focus their other senses on the target and incoming threats, since they don’t have to constantly check their location.

The belt navigation test in March was successful.  Many soldiers really like the new belt and believe it could be extremely useful. One of the tested soldiers says the gear is “hands-free, eyes-free, and mind-free.”

Tactile-based communications research has been going on for quite some time, first with studies using the vibrations to engage the blind or deaf.  Until recently, work has centered on the aviation industry, with Army researchers at Fort Rucker, Alabama using the sensors as a way to tell helicopter pilots whether they’re landing level.

Future tests will continue tinkering with the types of signals soldiers can receive via the belts, and trials will have to mimic more harsh combat conditions.  The tactile belt is certainly on its way of helping soldiers, and even other service members, carry out missions more efficiently and safely.  How can each military branches benefit from this technology?  How do you see the belt being used for missions?

Weigh in on the discussion here and connect within the military network.

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