Bottom of the World: Antarctic explorers wore a biometric undergarment to test its utility in space.Photo: XPAntarctikXPAntarctik expedition had some harrowing moments during their one-month trek in Antarctica. There was, for example, the stormy day when team leader Alexandre Byette had to navigate through a crevasse field during a blinding whiteout. “You don’t know if your next step is going to be over a cliff,” he remembers. His heart was thudding as he struggled forward on skis, pulling a 90-kilogram sled heaped with supplies behind him. Thanks to a sensor-studded shirt Byette was wearing beneath his layers of warm clothes, researchers know exactly how many times per minute his heart thumped, along with many other biomedical facts.
Byette and the other Canadian explorers were testing a biometric shirt called Astroskin on behalf of the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), which is evaluating potential applications of the technology for astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) or on future missions beyond low Earth orbit. Raffi Kuyumjian, the CSA’s chief medical officer, says the Antarctic expedition was a useful analogue for space missions: It involved a small crew of people who had to be completely self-reliant and who had to work hard under extreme conditions.
Astroskin was created by the Montreal-based start-up Carré Technologies. The shirt is an augmented version of the company’s first product, Hexoskin, which is designed primarily for athletes. Both shirts contain embedded sensors to measure vital signs and activity. An electrocardiograph measures heart rate and heart-rate variability, and plethysmography sensors on the front and back of the shirt assess breathing rate and respiration volume by changes to the shape of the torso. Calories burned are calculated based on that heart rate and respiration data. An accelerometer tracks steps taken and the number of steps per minute. Finally, if the shirt is worn while sleeping, the user’s “sleep-efficiency score” is calculated based on movement, heart rate, and respiration throughout the night.
Plethysmography is the New Black: Astroskin would give astronauts an easy way to keep track of their health in space.Image: Canadian Space Agency
In both shirts, a small device that slides into a pocket does the preliminary processing of all that data and transmits the information both to the user’s smartphone and to the company’s servers for further analysis. The technology gives people in the “quantified self” movement one simple way to collect all their information, says Jean-François Roy, cofounder of Carré Technologies. “It’s as easy as getting dressed in the morning,” he says. “You put your shirt on, you connect your device, and you’re measuring.” The shirts can even go through the wash, Roy notes proudly.
The CSA asked Carré Technologies for an even more comprehensive set of biometrics for the Astroskin. Roy’s team added a device to detect skin temperature as well as a more-sophisticated EKG sensor and an optical sensor that together measure blood oxygenation and enable the calculation of blood pressure (when combined with data from other sensors). “It’s like a portable lab,” Roy says. “If there’s something you can have in the ICU at the bedside, we tried to put it in the shirt.” As Astroskin is intended to let doctors keep an eye on astronauts’ health during their missions aboard the ISS, Roy’s engineers also added a monitoring and alert system.
A garment that continuously measures an astronaut’s vital signs and activity levels would address a need aboard the space station, says the CSA’s Kuyumjian. “There’s a misconception that astronauts are continuously monitored,” he says, adding that in reality, astronauts’ vital signs are recorded only while they’re exercising and during space walks. The garment used in space walks is far too cumbersome for everyday wear, he says, as it uses lots of cables and electrodes that are attached to the skin. “Ideally we want something so comfortable that the astronauts forget they’re wearing it,” Kuyumjian says.
Astroskin could be even more useful for long-duration exploration missions to Mars or beyond. On such missions, long delays in communication will make it difficult for doctors on Earth to provide medical support. “The crew needs to be autonomous,” says Kuyumjian. He imagines the sensor-studded shirt sending an astronaut’s biometric data to a spacecraft’s computer, where the information could be analyzed and checked for red flags. “It would be part of an infrastructure that would allow astronauts to diagnose and treat themselves,” Kuyumjian says. “With all the information that’s collected on a regular basis, perhaps there’s even a way to predict illnesses before they occur.”
Currently, researchers at the Université du Québec à Montréal are testing Astroskin against gold-standard biometric tools used in the lab to determine the shirt’s accuracy. The researchers are also analyzing the data collected during the Antarctic mission and plan to publish their findings in the coming months. If Astroskin is deemed spaceworthy, CSA astronauts will test it aboard the ISS in a few years.
During the Antarctic tryout, the trekkers wore their Astroskin continuously, and team leader Byette says he found his shirt quite comfortable. As the team didn’t have Internet or cellphone connectivity, they couldn’t get live readouts of their stats, but Byette is eager to see the data from certain adrenalized moments—like when one of his team members tumbled down a crevasse and had to be pulled back up by a rope. “The device is very simple. You plug it [in] and it starts recording,” Byette says. And simplicity is an imperative in extreme environments, he says: “You don’t want to be thinking about how it works when you’re fighting for your life.”
Eliza Strickland is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum, where she covers AI, biomedical engineering, and other topics. She holds a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University.