Smart Sensors for Space and Beyond

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A crew member working on his own in the recesses of the space ship begins to get increasingly stressed by his task. As his skin temperature rises, sensors embedded in his compression shirt note the increase and alert the ship’s medical officer, who heads to his colleague and suggests he take a break.

Such a scenario is not too far off in the future, and Florida Tech is developing the technology to allow it to happen. 

Florida Tech is developing new technology to assist astronauts in these situations and place them in the best position to complete tasks.

The proposal from a Florida Tech team titled “Mission Optimization Based on Crew Psychophysiological Fitness Monitoring and Adaptive Task Allocation” was recently selected for funding under NASA’s Florida Space Grant Consortium (FSGC) Florida Space Research Program. The one-year grant includes $25,000 from the FSGC and a $25,000 match from the university.

The team is composed of Florida Tech Human-Centered Design assistant professor Lucas Stephane, Biomedical Engineering assistant professor Mehmet Kaya, and Stephane’s Ph.D. students Brandon Cuffie and Yash Mehta.

The grant will allow for a proof-of-concept prototype for wearable sensors (e.g. electro encephalography devices connected to a compression shirt which contains biomedical sensors that detect physiological and psychological data such as heartrate changes, skin temperature increase caused by stress, and oxygen saturation, as well as gravity variations that may affect consciousness) integrated with environmental sensors (e.g. an embedded smart health station). By tracking a crews’ psychophysiological info prior to space missions, the sensors can help analyze and provide recommendations for selecting the men and women best suited for specific tasks.

Continuous monitoring of physical conditions would also help keep the system updated and ensure that those selected for space missions are the best candidates. In the event a member of the crew has elevated vitals, the sensors could note these changes and allow for the crew to intervene.

The work involved in the compression shirt and embedded smart healthcare station involve much research and trial and error, as the specific sensors need to fit on designated areas of the suit, while also developing a system that properly evaluates the user and her or his biomedical makeup.

Cuffie’s ideas build on human-centered design research conducted since 2014 with Florida Tech affiliate Larsen Motorsports for heart rate variability in high-g scenarios, as well as with the student team supervised by Stephane and led by Tiziano Bernard in 2016 that worked on embedded wearable sensors for the Enhanced Space Navigation and Orientation Suit. The interdisciplinary team is currently developing prototypes of the suit and of the embedded smart health station, working with astronaut Winston Scott, Florida Tech’s senior advisor to the president.

“There’s always been some sort of interaction with the environment,” Cuffie said. “You interact with a car, you interact with a robot, you can interact with the garment. So it just came from that. How do we interact with it and why can’t we do that now?”

The proof-of-concept prototype also provides the opportunity to explore how it might be used in healthcare, smart homes and on the International Space Station.

“For example, in the space station, if the astronaut is wearing this garment, the sensors on the garment can transmit data to the embedded sensors on the space station,” Mehta said.

Florida Tech’s research in this technology could lead to more work. NASA recently released a solicitation for building a new research institute, with universities coming together to work on topics the institute will explore. One of the topics suggested was building smart habitats, which would include smart sensors.

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I write about research at Florida Tech. For any inquiries, contact me at 321-674-8937 or rrandall@fit.edu.

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