December 1, 2021

MedCoach—augmented reality innovation for the farthest frontiers

Whether in deep space or the remote Arctic, just-in-time virtual training and support in challenging environments comes with life-saving promise.
MedCoach—augmented reality innovation for the farthest frontiers
Historically, Canada has had a strong competency in space medicine, with solutions that prove to have benefits here on earth.

Our everyday lives abound with technologies originally conceived for space exploration and research. From artificial limbs and solar cells to baby formula and camera phones, the beneficial trickle-down impact of space technologies on human health, prosperity, and innovation has been immeasurable. 

From the outset, ADGA’s MedCoach project has been conceived with just this sort of leap in mind. MedCoach is a concept study developed in collaboration with Leap Biosystems and the Canadian Space Agency that provides autonomous, real-time medical guidance and simulation training to astronauts using augmented reality. The idea behind its first use case is to enable deep space astronauts—using hands-free, voice-controlled smart glasses—to respond to medical emergencies without guidance from ground support in distant environments like Mars where communications with mission control are likely to be delayed or disrupted.

“When you’re on the International Space Station, it’s essentially a Zoom call to the ground for a medical consultation,” says Alan Higginson, Lead Systems Engineer on ADGA’s space team. “Pretty much every medical procedure that happens up there is led by a person on the ground. But when you get to the moon, where there are seconds of delay, or travel to Mars where there are many minutes of delay, there’s really no live feed to help you when a medical intervention might be immediately necessary. So the crew needs to be autonomous and know how to potentially do a medical procedure they may not have been recently trained on.” 

From the outset of the team’s research and development, they were also excited by the concept’s potential terrestrial benefits, as many of the same situational challenges faced by astronauts apply in a multitude of remote or difficult environments here on earth where communication connections can be unreliable. Most obviously, there are the many isolated communities lacking in critical health care facilities.

“Immediately you have the strong parallels to applications in remote areas of Canada that are currently underserved by telecommunications,” says Higginson. “And then there are events where telecommunications go down, like a big storm knocks it out, or knocks out a utility. So there is this broad need for network independent just-in-time training.” Here guidance expands to something bigger, such as for cases of emergency equipment maintenance and repair in the field. Or it could be deployed to confirm process controls, like in aviation when a system of checks and sign offs must occur before a plane can fly.

While other companies are pursuing similar just-in-time distance training systems using augmented reality, they are typically dependent on network access to perform—which may not be accessible in remote or chaotic environments. As it was originally conceived with astronauts in mind, the MedCoach concept was premised on intermittent network connectivity.

“A lot of the people working with AR right now assume that there is always a cloud, and they can just pump data into the cloud and have it do all the machine learning up there,” says Higginson. “MedCoach is all self-contained. Obviously, there is some network connectivity, for loading procedures and pushing updates, but there's no expectation that you have networking and no reliance on the quality or latency of that network.”

The other key differentiator is that the MedCoach headset enables the user to perform a procedure hands-free, a crucial feature given that hands must of course be sterilized in any medical scenario and can’t come into contact with any other equipment other than what’s essential to the task at hand. 

Historically, Canada has had a strong competency in space medicine, with solutions that prove to have benefits here on earth. As ADGA is relatively new to the field, it has benefitted immeasurably from its partnership with LEAP Biosystems and its team of space medicine experts in developing MedCoach’s remote medical procedure guidance technology. Led by former Canadian astronaut Dave Williams, LEAP’s mission is to combine clinical medicine with innovative and disruptive technologies for human space exploration, while translating its findings back to provide cutting edge medical care here on earth. As Françoise Gagnon, ADGA’s CEO, says of the partnership, “The work being carried out keeps Canada at the leading edge of space technology and reasserts our leadership in the global space economy.”

Adds Higginson, “Our space team at ADGA has always had a lean toward innovation. We’re excited about new technologies and their potential applications. When you match that up with our real competencies in project management and engineering, plus an established 50-year history of quality work, it opens the doors to a lot of amazing possibilities.”

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