Future astronauts could ‘feel’ alien ground with new space boots

New technology developed by Draper labs could help astronauts actually feel the ground beneath them. The product in question is a boot, outfitted with sensors and feedback motors that generate tactile response based on what they detect.

You may not have worn space boots in the past, but they’re very similar to any standard heavy boot – albeit likely heavier or at least thicker than anything you’ve worn. But you likely know that you can’t feel any of the fine detail of the ground underneath you, and in many cases that’s actually the point.

When you’re wandering around the surface of Mars, however, and you’re wearing a heavy protective suit so you don’t die of exposure to a hostile environment. Helmets are big challenges when it comes to overall vision, especially on the periphery, and the pressurization of the suit further blunts the tactile sensory experience.

Draper’s research resulted in a new boot design created by a team led by Draper Fellow and former MIT graduate student Alison Gibson, who incorporated sensors and vibration motors into boots, essentially passing through sensation in a way that works within the constraints of pressurized EVA work.

The sensors not only pass through haptic feedback to the “vibrotactile boots,” but also essentially “see” the world around them, using a built-in ultrasonic range-finder, as well as proximity detectors These combine information to generate an augmented reality display that can be incorporated into a helmet visor, letting astronauts watch out for potential obstructions or trip hazards even if they can’t actually see them.

Draper envisions other potential applications of the tech right here on Earth, including for those with visual impairments, and for first responders including firefighters.

The system shares a lot of similarities with one developed by MIT graduate students and revealed as a prototype back in March, but that makes a lot of sense given Gibson’s alma mater.