Altitude chambers, or hypobaric chambers, are environmental test chambers which replicate the pressure and gas conditions found at different altitudes for the purposes of evaluating the response to the changes. Altitude chambers are used to test electronics, products and packaging which may be exposed to high altitude environments during their lifespan. If malfunctions occur, or other flaws are revealed in the testing process, manufacturers can then adapt the product design to avoid future malfunctions.
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Purpose of Altitude Chambers
Industries such as aerospace, aeronautical, military and automotive employ strict altitude chamber testing due to the critical nature of their product activities. For example, the failure of a missile guidance system, aircraft radio or a deep sea diving regulator would likely result in a severe and fatal accident. Therefore, the system components and equipment in these industries must be tested in extremes of varying pressure in order to determine any potential weaknesses. In addition, commercial products that require shipping via air can be tested in altitude chambers to ensure no product damage occurs during transit.
Altitude chambers are also used for the testing of the human body in response to changes in pressure and altitude. These walk-in chambers monitor the response of the respiratory and circulatory system in persons for the purposes of pilot and astronaut training, professional athletic training, and in determining the symptoms and treatments for hypoxia, a condition caused by altitude change.
Design of Altitude Chambers
Environmental test chambers are designed with the capacity to replicate extreme environmental conditions in order to comprehensively test the reliability of a product. Altitude chambers simulate extremely high altitudes to evaluate the effects of pressure and air change, and routinely 10-8 Torr levels are achieved in these vacuum chambers. Altitude chamber manufacturers fabricate chambers which have the capacity to replicate pressure conditions of up to 100,000 feet above sea level. Test chambers can be used to test a combination of environmental conditions, and often temperature and humidity tests are included in the altitude chamber. This is necessary to increase the validity of the results in accordance to the true nature of the environment the product will be functioning in.
Chambers such as those designed for such extreme altitude testing must be equipped with heavy gauge walls to prevent the internal collapse of the structure due to the inside chamber's vacuum-like atmosphere. Chambers for altitude testing vary greatly in size from bench-top chambers to drive-in chambers due to the broad range of products that require altitude testing.
Versatility and Altitude Chambers
Many companies in the aircraft industry will utilize altitude chambers to train pilots and personnel. Recently some companies have been upgrading their systems to include reduced oxygen conditions. At 25,000 feet humans will experience a condition called hypoxia. Hypoxiation occurs when the body, or a section of the body, is oxygen deprived. This sickness can lead to far worse complications such as high altitude pulmonary edema and high altitude cerebral edema. The advantage of an altitude chamber is the trainees can experience the simulated effects of hypoxia but do not have to be exposed for prolonged time frames if an issue arises. Another purpose of the upgrade is to reach the desired goals of familiarizing personnel with hypoxia but without pressure manipulation and rather with gas management.
The chamber also allows for a greater level of flexibility in the training sessions because protective equipment is not a necessity. These chambers are great for individuals that do not require full training courses and only need refreshers. Those individuals will save money because they will not have to actually reach those altitude conditions. Overall altitude chambers save everyone money in the long run. Although a majority of altitude chambers are very expensive a variety of organizations will allow the public to utilize the chambers through appointments. It is also a growing trend among athletes to use altitude chambers to adjust his or her body to the conditions of the place he or she will be competing.