Developed for astronauts, a small device called
"the CPOD" does for people what black boxes do for airplanes.
by Karen Miller
When planes have a
problem, analysts can usually figure out what went wrong. They simply
check the plane's "black box," which records exactly what was happening
to the plane at the time.
Now, there's something
similar for people. Under the leadership of Stanford University
professor Greg Kovacs and engineers Carsten Mundt (NASA/Ames) and
Kevin Montgomery (Stanford), researchers have developed a device
that is like a black box or flight recorder for human beings.
Just as a plane's black
box records crucial mechanical data, the CPOD (pronounced "see-pod"),
keeps track of biological data, like changes in heart rate, the
amount of oxygen in the blood stream, how the wearer is moving ...
and much more.
The CPOD, first envisioned
by John Hines of NASA's Astrobionics Technology Program, was intended
to make it easier to monitor the vital signs of astronauts in space.
Right now, such a process involves hooking the astronauts up "with
a whole bunch of wires to a huge rack of equipment." In some cases,
says Mundt, the data are recorded on paper and entered into a laptop
The CPOD changes all
It's a compact, portable,
wearable device - a single piece of equipment that gathers a wide
variety of vital signs. About the size of a computer mouse, a CPOD
is worn around the waist. It's comfortable enough to be worn while
sleeping. It's non-invasive.
Basic features of the CPOD
It takes only minutes
to don. Importantly, it can track a person's physiologic functioning
as they go about their normal routine - they don't have to be tethered
to some stationary device. It can store data for eight-hour periods
for later downloading; alternatively, it can send it wirelessly,
in real time, to some other device.
"This is a new tool,"
says Kovacs. "It allows monitoring of the body without invasion
of the body - without tethering the person down, letting them go
about their normal business."
Such data would, of
course, be invaluable to researchers trying to understand how the
human body adapts to extreme conditions - like space, the moon,
or Mars. The ability to monitor astronauts so closely, as they work,
and in real time, would also make the astronauts much safer.
For one thing, the
CPOD could notice problems before the astronauts even became aware
of them. "We have alarms set in our device," says Mundt. "If the
heart rate goes, let's say, above 170, the CPOD would beep, and
then the astronaut would know it's time to take it easy."
And, in the case of an emergency, the CPOD could provide vital signs
within seconds - and it could quickly stream that information back
to doctors on Earth.
The CPOD typically
tracks heart performance, blood pressure, respiration, temperature,
and blood oxygen levels. Using three tiny accelerometers, it also
tracks a person's movements - it can tell whether they're running,
for example, or spinning or tumbling.
And it can be reconfigured.
If researchers choose, almost any kind of sensor could be plugged
into the device. The CPOD could, for example, keep track of ambient
air pressure, or monitor the concentrations of atmospheric gases.
With such capabilities,
the CPOD is likely to prove as important on Earth as it could be
to conquering space.
Using the CPOD, EMT's
at an accident scene could quickly gain information about a victim's
condition. CPOD's could monitor the blood oxygen levels of firefighters
inside burning buildings. Physicians could use CPOD's for "outcome
monitoring," using them to track a patient's reactions to a particular
procedure or drug. Athletes, like divers and mountain climbers,
could use them to keep track of their exertion levels. The CPOD's
could help monitor pollution, and even treat soldiers on a battlefield.
strapped onto a person.
"There's just tremendous
opportunity for a box like this," says Kovacs.
Mundt believes that CPOD's will be helping out in space in a matter
of years. Right now, though, the researchers are still testing its
performance in a variety of space-analog conditions.
Astronauts, for example,
have worked with the CPOD on a NASA mission aboard the Aquarius,
an underwater habitat located off the coast of Key Largo. The Aquarius
is similar to the space station's living quarters, the Zvezda Service
Module, and Mundt and his team wanted to test wireless streaming
in that kind of "metal can" environment. "It's very similar to the
space shuttle," said Mundt. "There's a lot of reflection of wireless
signals, and lots of interference."
approaches the Aquarius undersea research laboratory.
The CPOD has also been
tested onboard the KC-135 - NASA's "vomit comet" aircraft that achieves
almost 30 seconds of weightlessness for passengers by flying high
parabolic arcs. "The flights went really well!" says Kovacs.
Next, Kovacs and colleagues
plan to make the device smarter. They're in the process of adding
software that can help diagnose problems by analysing the massive
amounts of data that the CPOD collects. Such software could hunt
out correlations that might explain an anomaly. For example, if
a person's heart rate suddenly spiked, such software could connect
that to what was happening at the time: whether the person was exercising,
or being still, for example.
The CPOD, says Kovacs,
is an elegant job of putting the current state of the art in sensors
in a compact, integrated package. "It's an incredibly versatile
tool," he says. "It's a medical monitor that just about any doctor
can use." And it can be used just about anywhere. Despite a CPOD's
small size, he says, "it's a huge thing - a really huge thing."