New research from Draper into technology that could build a self-return system into spacesuits would produce a significant leap in astronaut safety during activities in outer space. Draper researchers filed a patent for an automated ‘take-me-home’ feature that would turn spacesuits from mostly manual affairs to something that could guide itself back to safe shelter in the case of an accident.
Once triggered, either by the astronaut themselves, or by another crew member or even ground station staff, the spacesuit’s built-in thrusters would autonomously guide itself back to a designated safe location. It’s designed around the challenges of navigating in outer space, where there is no GPS, and it has to take into account conditions that might impact survivability, including remaining oxygen level and fuel available for the thrusters.
Even if the system doesn’t have to take over entirely, it can provide guidance to an astronaut inside using visual cues on a HUD that shows up on the spacesuit visor. It can also provide audio ‘turn-by-turn’ directions, as well as even tactile feedback to provide proper instructions in case something happens during extra-vehicular activity (EVA) and there’s cause for deviation from the standard plan.
It’s not just for space, however – this could also find application in fields including emergency response, and skydiving, Draper says. Plus, it could be combined with some of its other research into spacesuit tech, including boots and gloves that pass on sensor data to the wearer within to give them heightened senses.
Often, current spacesuits are essentially hindrances to their wearers, but Draper and others are working on making them augmentation devices, rather than obstacles to be dealt with and worked around. That’ll be a big help if we ever want to make a go of colonizing Mars, or even of properly commercializing space closer to home.