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Space Health Innovation – What space challenges could small innovators tackle?

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This weekend at Houston's BioScience Research Collaborative Space Health Challenge Hackathon participants were presented with a set of potential problems. As originally presented, the Challenges registrants were invited to address were broad issues involving both hardware and software. By the Friday evening (Feb 7) kickoff organizers had selected concrete, focused problems that could be addressed without massive efforts. So what do NASA and its JSC contractors think groups of small, independent innovators could tackle more effectively than massive aerospace contractors? Organizers suggest looking at the capabilities of existing commercial devices such as IPads and Google Glasses. NASA would like to add open source software solutions (APS) to leverage the existing advanced devices available commercially.

“Computer based training for astronauts,” although described as “Intergalactic Traveling University” was operationalized as a request to take the 40 hours of medical training astronauts receive and the existing medical procedures manuals (PDF) and training videos to propose a practical way to provide refresher training while in space. The broad category of “emergency procedure representation” translated to “Saving Time to Save Lives”. The product will be a practical interactive system to rapidly guide astronauts through a medical emergency. The two work streams are obviously linked, but in a hackathon approach, multiple approaches are being encouraged.

A second cluster of challenges were around use of augmented reality for “locational awareness,” automatic location of lost items and nutrition labels. These translated to: “Stay clear, danger near”, “I Spy” / “where is Mr. Spock”, and an automated “calorie counter.” All of these applications would use modern image processing technology in conjunction with existing onboard video cameras to recognize and record specific classes of items: hazards, misplaced materials or nutrition labels, respectively. A little inquiry determined that the purpose of the nutritional labels application was actually to accurately monitor astronaut diets without requiring intrusive food intake journaling. Since fresh foods are provided whenever possible, a system for simply recognizing and recording food labels was not adequate to meet the need. Optical recognition of standard food substance would also be required. A similar video processing application is detecting heart rate (pulse) rate without physical contact as the astronaut moves about. Although current webcam products can detect heart rate in a stationary subject, a moving target presents a major challenge.

A third request was for a “Swiss army knife” for medical imaging. The participants were asked to develop a single multipurpose medical imaging tool that could photograph inside eyes, ears, throat, etc. and collect and transmit the images. A more daunting big data task was to come up with better interfaces to an open source Health Data Platform, to produce a Medical HAL 3000. Common medical challenges are muscle aches and pains, rashes, and motion sickness. Pre-flight quarantine is usually effective against contagious diseases. Astronauts spend 2.5 hours a day doing physical training, which also needs to be captured for medical history.

A physical application requested was a network to provide simulation of the delays inherent in Earth/Space communications to allow testing of electronic equipment under delayed-response conditions.

Steven Gilmore discussed the complications of use in space. In addition to the complications of low gravity, durability and minimizing weight, solutions are limited to those technologies compatible with existing NASA software and hardware. NASA landed on the moon with the processing power of a small calculator. The shuttle was managed with Pentium technology. Flying cutting edge hardware is not encouraged. A usage history showing long-term reliability is important for new hardware in space.

Another goal of the hackathon is to help innovators better understand how to approach commercializing an innovative solution. An interesting reminder to innovators is that NASA is doing something now that is not working. While the space environment is unique, it’s important to communicate how the proposed solution can both solve the NASA problem and also have a commercial application outside NASA. When trying to describe their solution, teams should try to understand and communicate the next step, if any, beyond what’s been accomplished over the weekend.

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