Helicopter Seat-Integrated Power Assist Device

Navy SBIR 23.2 - Topic N232-083
NAVAIR - Naval Air Systems Command
Pre-release 4/19/23   Opens to accept proposals 5/17/23   Closes 6/14/23 12:00pm ET    [ View Q&A ]

N232-083 TITLE: Helicopter Seat-Integrated Power Assist Device

OUSD (R&E) CRITICAL TECHNOLOGY AREA(S): Human-Machine Interfaces

OBJECTIVE: Develop a seat-integrated power assist device that reduces low back pain and improves aircrew endurance by effectively reducing the weight of torso-mounted Personal Safety Equipment (PSE).

DESCRIPTION: The musculoskeletal burden of prolonged and repeated exposure to torso-mounted PSE has been tied to an increase in the number of complaints of fatigue and chronic low back pain among helicopter pilots. One survey of 648 Navy H-60 helicopter pilots indicated that 88.1% had experienced back and/or neck pain during or immediately after flight [Ref 1]. Fatigue and chronic back pain lead to a reduction in pilot availability, reduced operational readiness and effectiveness, shortened careers, and increased medical costs over the career and life of the aviator.

Although helicopter pilots� fatigue and low back pain are most likely attributable to several factors that include PSE weight, poor posture, seating ergonomics, vibration of the aircraft during flight, and total number of flight hours, the weight of torso-mounted PSE is considered a leading contributor to naval and military aviators� fatigue and low back pain.

This SBIR effort will be focused on the development and integration of technologies that will substantially reduce (> 70%) the effective weight of PSE. Technologies and design concepts will focus on reducing the frequency and severity of fatigue and back pain among naval aviators that must wear up to 45 lb (20.41 kg) of PSE during their flights. The main goal of the resulting technology is to protect the musculoskeletal health of naval aviators, increase their mission endurance, and to reduce the incidence of low back injuries.

Given that the H-60 type, model, series (TMS) platform is widely used across multiple services (Navy, Army, Air Force, and Special Operations Command), the program plan for this effort calls for the use of the H-60 TMS as the testbed for flight demonstration of the system. The burden of torso-mounted PPE is not unique to the H-60 platform; technology borne out of this effort is expected to be portable to other rotary-wing platforms and fixed-wing non-ejection aircraft seating systems.

It is intended that the system will:

(a) be compatible with aviator/operator body-borne mission equipment and vests,

(b) not cause a substantial increase in weight of the seating system,

(c) be retro-fittable into the H-60 pilot seat and airframe without aircraft modifications,

(d) avoid diminishment of crash performance and occupant protection of the baseline seat,

and avoid:

(a) increasing muscle activity in the torso,

(b) increasing energy expenditure (metabolic cost),

(c) reducing range of motion,

(d) impeding motion,

(e) increasing discomfort due to localized contact pressure,

(f) reducing task performance,

(g) inhibiting emergency egress, and

(h) creating abnormal spinal loading.

The goal of this effort is to develop and qualify an assistive device that reduces the load of PSE borne by military pilots. Successful completion of the work tasks outlined for each phase is designed to incrementally and iteratively build toward a qualified system.

Note: NAVAIR will provide Phase I awardees with the appropriate guidance required for human research protocols so that they have the information to use while preparing their Phase II Initial Proposal. Institutional Review Board (IRB) determination as well as processing, submission, and review of all paperwork required for human subject use can be a lengthy process. As such, no human research will be allowed until Phase II and work will not be authorized until approval has been obtained, typically as an option to be exercised during Phase II.

PHASE I: Design and develop concepts that allow for integration of the Power Assist Device (PAD) into the SH-60S seating system and component level testing to assess the feasibility and utility of the PAD system. The Phase I effort will include prototype plans to be developed under Phase II.

PHASE II: Develop a prototype PAD system based on the results of Phase I and integrate into the SH-60S seat with minimal modifications to the pilot seat. Perform laboratory testing to demonstrate prototype is capable of off-loading the weight of PSE onto the pilot seat by at least 70% without increasing muscle activity in the torso, without creating or increasing any other adverse physiological condition, and without reducing the occupant�s range of motion. Develop plans and obtain approval for human-in-the-loop testing that will be conducted during the Phase II option period.

Note: Please refer to the statement included in the Description above regarding human research protocol for Phase II.

PHASE III DUAL USE APPLICATIONS: Further refine the PAD system design based on human testing, install on host helicopter and conduct flight testing to demonstrate PAD integrated seat can meet Navy requirements. The U.S. Government intends to conduct a wide range of testing to certify that the performance of this system warrants use onboard Navy aircraft. Broadly, the Government intends to conduct the following system levels tests in order to qualify the PAD: (a) system performance testing, (b) user acceptance testing, (c) service life characterization testing, (d) environmental exposure testing, and (e) flight demonstration testing.

As the system is designed to reduce effective torso-borne weight, services with heavy PSE will realize the greatest benefit; commercial operators with minimal body-borne equipment will have a reduced benefit from the system.


  1. Phillips, A. S. (2011). The scope of back pain in Navy helicopter pilots [Master�s thesis, Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey CA]. DTIC. https://apps.dtic.mil/sti/pdfs/ADA543155.pdf
  2. Bongers, P. M., Hulshof, C. T. J., Dljkstra, L., Boshuizen, H. C., Groenhout, H. J. M., & Valken, E. (1990). Back pain and exposure to whole body vibration in helicopter pilots. Ergonomics, 33(8), 1007-1026. https://doi.org/10.1080/00140139008925309
  3. Cunningham, L. K., Docherty, S., & Tyler, A. W. (2010). Prevalence of low back pain (LBP) in rotary wing aviation pilots. Aviation, space, and environmental medicine, 81(8), 774-778. https://doi.org/10.3357/ASEM.2736.2010
  4. Healing, R. F., & Hamon, K. (2014, May 20�22). Eliminating avoidable helicopter seating-related injuries to improve combat readiness and mission effectiveness [Paper presentation]. American Helicopter Society International 70th Annual Forum, Quebec, Canada. https://vtol.org/store/product/eliminating-avoidable-helicopter-seatingrelated-injuries-to-improve-combat-readiness-and-mission-effectiveness-9482.cfm-injuries-to-improve-combat-readiness-and-mission-effectiveness-9482.cfm

KEYWORDS: Pilot Back Pain; helicopter seats, endurance; aircrew; Personal Survival Equipment; PSE; torso-mounted equipment


The Navy Topic above is an "unofficial" copy from the Navy Topics in the DoD 23.2 SBIR BAA. Please see the official DoD Topic website at www.defensesbirsttr.mil/SBIR-STTR/Opportunities/#announcements for any updates.

The DoD issued its Navy 23.2 SBIR Topics pre-release on April 19, 2023 which opens to receive proposals on May 17, 2023, and closes June 14, 2023 (12:00pm ET).

Direct Contact with Topic Authors: During the pre-release period (April 19, 2023 through May 16, 2023) proposing firms have an opportunity to directly contact the Technical Point of Contact (TPOC) to ask technical questions about the specific BAA topic. Once DoD begins accepting proposals on May 17, 2023 no further direct contact between proposers and topic authors is allowed unless the Topic Author is responding to a question submitted during the Pre-release period.

SITIS Q&A System: After the pre-release period, until May 31, (at 12:00 PM ET), proposers may submit written questions through SITIS (SBIR/STTR Interactive Topic Information System) at www.dodsbirsttr.mil/topics-app/ by logging in and following instructions. In SITIS, the questioner and respondent remain anonymous but all questions and answers are posted for general viewing.

Topics Search Engine: Visit the DoD Topic Search Tool at www.dodsbirsttr.mil/topics-app/ to find topics by keyword across all DoD Components participating in this BAA.

Help: If you have general questions about the DoD SBIR program, please contact the DoD SBIR Help Desk via email at [email protected]

Topic Q & A

5/16/23  Q. Can we attach to airframe structure above and aft of the seat?
   A. Modifications that do not require permanent modification to the airframe (eg, drilling into the metal) are permitted, so long as they do not negatively affect the form, fit, function, or crashworthiness of the seating system, or hinder emergency egress. Note that there may not be available structure in suitable locations above and behind the seats.
5/16/23  Q. The SBIR statement focuses on the development and integration of technologies that reduce the effective weight of the PSE, however the document listed in reference 1, reveals that other likely causes for lower back injuries is vibration and seat posture. Has there been a solution identified for these? If so, we would need information regarding such solution to integrate it with our prototype. If not, should we consider vibration and seating position as a topic to be addressed within our prototype?
   A. Current vibration and posture solutions would be transparent to this SBIR effort, but some details may be provided, if necessary. Vibration and posture solutions are not the focus of this SBIR effort, but may be acceptable as supplemental capabilities.
5/16/23  Q. Are we allowed to use magnets as part of the prototype?
   A. Yes, but may be subjected to tests for electromagnetic interference with aircraft equipment.
5/16/23  Q. What are the survivability requirements for the pilots? (Crash loads)
   A. Airframe accelerations of 20g vertically, 20g longitudinally, and 10g laterally. Seat stroke is approximately 15g vertically.
5/16/23  Q. Are we able to relocate gear on the vest?
   A. Yes, subject to evaluation for operational suitability of the new configuration
5/16/23  Q. Are we able to attach our prototype to the seat harness as part of its functionality?
   A. Yes, provided that the form, fit, function, strength, and crashworthy capabilities are not negatively affected, nor is emergency egress hindered.
5/16/23  Q. Can you provide a drawing/IPB for the pilot�s seat?
   A. We will attempt to provide top-level drawings with dimensions can be provided. Drawings will not have proprietary information.
5/16/23  Q. Are we able to access power? If so, from where and what kind of power is available?
   A. Power is available and is 28 volts DC.
5/16/23  Q. Regarding the creation of a prototype to address SBIR N232-083:
Are we able to modify the following?
  • Seat
  • Vest
  • Restraints
  •    A. Modifications to the seat, vest, and restraint are permitted, so long as they do not negatively affect their form, fit, and function, reduce the crashworthiness, or hinder emergency egress. Preference is for no permanent modifications (eg, unbolt a seat component and replace it with a similar component using the same bolt holes).
    5/15/23  Q. Will there be access to aircraft power? Can the device be manual (no power) with a rotating handle?
       A. Yes, there will be access to aircraft power. Yes, the device can be unpowered. Any handle or control device must not impede emergency egress, degrade the crashworthiness of the seat, or cause discomfort (for example, by pressing into the pilot�s thigh during normal flight)
    5/15/23  Q. In the photos I find of the SH-60 and UH-60 cockpit there doesn't seem to be room behind the pilot or co-pilot for the PSE. Is the seat being redesigned?
       A. The seat is not being redesigned. A new back cushion as part of a proposal will be considered.
    5/15/23  Q. Can we modify the armored seat bucket? Are there any NO-GO zones on the seat (bucket, structural supports, area under or directly behind the seat)?
       A. The seat may be modified with �bolt-off/bolt-on� components. That is, removal of a seat component and replacing it with a modified version is permitted.
    Permanent changes (eg, drilling holes in the seat) are not permitted. The area under the seat, or any other area that would reduce the crash energy absorption of the seat, is a �no-go� zone.
    5/15/23  Q. Are there attachment points on the PSE? Can we add attachment points to the PSE? Is there a MIL-SPEC or PSE specification available on-line?
       A. Attachment points may be added to the vest using the standard MOLLE loops or similar attachment methods. The photos in this link offer view of crewmen, not pilots, who have a slightly different vest, but the basic vest is the same. https://navysbir.com/n23_2/N232-083-Photos_vests.pdf

    [ Return ]