Technology originally designed by NASA’s Glenn Research Center scientists to monitor the health of astronauts is finding new applications on Earth that could significantly impact the safety of pilots and be used to rehabilitate cardio-pulmonary patients.
A NASA engineer and a team of scientists at Glenn developed the “Portable Unit for Metabolic Analysis (PUMA) to monitor the oxygen consumption and carbon dioxide production rates of astronauts exercising during long missions. The portable unit was designed to give the crew the ability to move around the spacecraft without being tethered to a large immovable unit. The units are wearable, versatile, small, uses low power, minimally invasive, and able to address the monitoring requirements of multiple scenarios.
PUMA measures six components to evaluate metabolic function such as oxygen and carbon dioxide partial pressure, volume flow rate, heart rate, gas pressure, and temperature. From those measurements, PUMA can compute the oxygen uptake, carbon dioxide output, and ventilation. A small embedded computer takes readings of each sensor and relays the data wirelessly to a remote computer via Bluetooth.
Orbital Research Inc. is currently testing hardware that uses technology to monitor the oxygen levels of Air Force F-22 pilots. A series of accidents involving pilot suffering from hypoxia or a lack of oxygen led the military and the manufacturer of PUMA to approach Orbital for hardware capable of answering why those events occurred.
Today, the first prototype system featuring a fleet of sensors in the pilot’s oxygen mask is flying with the pilots and offers warning signals if the sensors detect the onset of hypoxia before symptoms occur. The goal is to give the pilots a warning so they can take countermeasures to start supplemental oxygen or lower their altitude. After 40 flights, data is being analyzed to further understand the problem.
“We have expanded the PUMA technology to create new devices for specific work with the warfighter,” reports Aaron Rood, Medical Products Manager at Orbital. “The company has just finished the first phase of a project with the Navy SEALs to develop a sensor suite in diving gear that provides biometric data to both the diver and support staff in the boat during actual combat missions”, according to Rood.
In the meantime, the healthcare industry is investing in PUMA technology to use to monitor patients. “Summa Health system has just signed an agreement with NASA to use their headgear to assess patients with COPD. PUMA will help them make physiological measurements to assess rehabilitation efforts,” explains NASA Engineer Dan Dietrich lead engineer on the team that developed PUMA.
In addition, the Cleveland Clinic wants to use PUMA to measure the metabolic functions of pulmonary patients. The idea is to have a portable easy to use unit to take measurements during a six minute walk test in the hospital. University Hospital physicians in Cleveland think the technology might work to monitor epileptic patients during severe episodes which would lead to a better understanding of the physiological effects of seizures.
The possible applications for the use of PUMA technology for human health continues to grow and in the future, PUMA could be used to determine the caloric requirements of daily living activities in order to develop nutrition and weight loss programs and to assess the nutritional needs of critical care patients. This would be useful in the case of the critically ill to determine the impact of certain foods on metabolic rate and to quantify the field training of athletes to design effective training programs.