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mHealth in Space: Not Just Science Fiction Any More

The Canadian Space Agency is developing a wireless sensor system that would be worn by astronauts headed to the moon, Mars and beyond. It also could be used closer to home.

By Eric Wicklund

- The Canadian Space Agency is moving forward with plans to develop a wireless sensor system that will monitor its astronauts’ vital signs in space.

The On Astronaut Wireless sensor System (OAWSS), being developed by Montreal-based Hexoskin, could someday not only help Matt Damon while he’s stranded on Mars, but help healthcare providers here on Earth monitor people in remote locations or even their own homes.

Hexoskin joins a growing number of mHealth companies and health systems testing wearables – ranging from adhesive patches to sensor-embedded clothing – in extreme conditions. Hexoskin has been testing its technology in Hawaii’s rugged mountains, while others – including the Mayo Clinic – have teamed up to study sensor-based technology used in Mount Everest expeditions, trips to Antarctica and Argentina and deep-sea diving missions.

In 2012, BodyMedia (which was acquired by JawBone in 2013) announced that its FIT Armbands, unveiled in 2011, were being used on the International Space Station as part of a study to determine astronauts’ energy needs during long space flights. They were also being tested by The Mars Society, a non-profit organization dedicated to human exploration and settlement of Mars, in extreme condition studies in Utah.

Hexoskin’s contract with the CSA calls for the development of an Advanced Crew Medical System (ACMS) that would monitor astronauts’ vital signs, diagnose health issues and develop a treatment plan that would be applicable during space missions. The OAWSS would include wireless sensor units that would be attached to an astronaut’s body via a biocompatible adhesive, a data management system that would include an electronic health record, a real-time monitoring interface and an application programming interface (API) compliant with HL7 standards.

“We’ve designed a unique wireless body sensor platform that provides long-term vital signs monitoring with a high level of accuracy, reliability and configurability, and we’re very excited to have been selected by CSA for this project,” Pierre-Alexandre Fournier, Hexoskin’s CEO, said in a Dec. 22 release announcing the company’s contract with the CSA’s Space Technologies Development Program. “The technology developed will be useful to many space groups within CSA, including the Life Sciences and Space Medicine groups.”

Hexoskin, which has been working with the CSA since 2011, developed the Astroskin system, which was first field-tested in Antarctica in 2014 and then used during a mock Mars mission at the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) facility on the slopes of one of Hawaii’s tallest volcanoes.

The company’s commercial division produces smart shirts for sports and health tracking, including sleep studies. It’s also being considered for studies to measure the effects of aging on the human body.

Earlier this month, Hexoskin announced a collaboration with Cisco, among others, to equip Dubai’s police officers with sensor-embedded clothing to monitor their biometric signs during stressful situations.

"We want people to conduct research in a real-life context instead of doing health research in a clinical environment, a controlled environment, such as making people run on treadmills," Fournier told Space.com in an interview earlier this year. "We want to know what happens to people when they climb mountains, what happens to people when they take walks around the city, when they stay at home, when they sleep at home."

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