How satellite technology is fighting COVID-19

Article By : Rajan Bedi

Space-based assets, combined with autonomous technologies and geographic information systems, are playing a vital role to contain the highly-contagious coronavirus

Telemedicine has been used by the space industry since the start of human spaceflight to understand the impact of weightlessness on astronauts. NASA first started experimenting with the satellite provision of healthcare back in 1966 when the ATS-1 spacecraft was used to provide patient care to rural neighbourhoods in Alaska. This was motivated by the lack of local medical infrastructure, high rates of tuberculosis within the indigenous American-Indian community, and the need to demonstrate the value of satellite applications to state and federal agencies.

satellite healthcare AlaskaFigure 1 NASA provided satellite-based healthcare to Alaskans.

Since ATS-1, satellite-based telemedicine has been successfully used in countries such as Australia, Albania, Canada, India, Italy, Romania, Russia, and Scotland. In 1996, ESA provided a satellite communication system to link Italian doctors with a field hospital in Sarajevo, Bosnia, enabling teleconsultations for both civilian and military patients.

ESA telemedicine stationFigure 2 The ESA provided mobile satellite telemedicine stations.

In 2001, ISRO established a dedicated satellite-telemedicine network throughout India offering cardiology, diabetology, mammography, ophthalmology, radiology, X-ray, and other healthcare services using its GSAT-3, GSAT-12, and INSAT-3C spacecraft. In India, 75% of doctors practice in urban centres whereas the majority of the population live in remote villages. It has been calculated that patients saved 81% of the cost they would have otherwise spent if they had to travel to the nearest city for similar treatment. Following the tsunami in 2004, post-relief, mobile satellite-telemedicine stations were set up on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

In 2013, Hughes Network Systems signed a deal to use its Spaceway 3 satellite to provide broadband communication for telemedicine from three trucks and a boat, offering vital healthcare services to migrant farm workers and rural communities in the US states of Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont.

A short video of the Sunbeam satellite telemedicine boat providing vital healthcare services to patients in Maine can be viewed below:

Today, satellite technology is increasingly being used to improve healthcare by providing high-bandwidth, multi-media patient information to aid shared clinical decision-making and early diagnosis. Remote visual and telephone consultations help to alleviate busy surgeries and minimise the spread of germs.

Today, some paramedics carry equipment that use satellite communication to stream live vital signs such as ECG, temperature, respiration rate, and blood pressure to doctors who are due to take over treatment. The link allows two-way real-time consultation, allowing the ambulance team to make rapid clinical and transport decisions. It also enables seamless patient care as the casualty is transferred from the paramedics to the hospital.

Due to the contagious nature of COVID-19, the use of satellite communication allows quarantined diagnosis without increasing the amount of face-to-face contact between patients and healthcare providers, a major step in reducing the risk of spreading the disease. Other technologies such as using robots to disinfect hospitals and autonomous drones to deliver medical supplies and meals, both of which are being assisted by high-accuracy satellite navigation, are preventing cross-infection and allowing countries to contain the coronavirus. AI is being used to process the large amounts of data that have been collected to expedite the development of a vaccine, with the large internet giants contributing their computing resources and expertise.

disinfecting drone contains COVID-19Figure 3 A disinfecting drone was used to contain COVID-19 in China.

Imagery from Earth-observation satellites is currently being used to create population density maps which are being combined with census data to identify demographics of vulnerable population groups such as the young or elderly. In China, the HaiGe Smart Epidemic Prevention Management Platform was used to plan the routes of commuters to avoid highly-contagious COVID-19 areas. By connecting the databases of infected persons and local geographic information, the HaiGe software is capable of displaying the real-time cartography of disease locations and identify hotspots with the use of a trajectory-tracking algorithm. After comparing the location of the source of an infection with the common route of employees’ daily commute, and analyzing the density of people and vehicles at different times, the system re-plans a safer journey to work.

Satellite navigation is being used to monitor the movements of carriers of COVID-19 who have not been hospitalised, as well as geo-referencing patient data to be shared between doctors and patients. It is also being used to validate access to school lessons based on the location of pupils and the time when the learning occurred. Some countries are using geo-location to inform people if they have been in close contact with a carrier and to quarantine themselves.

Satellite communication is helping families and friends maintain communication using social-media applications during self-isolation. The positive impact this is having on our general well-being cannot be underestimated, particularly for those who live alone or the elderly. Increasingly, many of you now use space-based internet to connect online and work from home during periods of self-isolation.

Space-based assets comprising satellite communication, navigation, Earth-observation, internet and mobile telemedicine stations, combined with autonomous technologies and geographic information systems, are playing a vital role in delivering healthcare, preventing cross-infection between carriers and doctors, and containing the highly-contagious coronavirus. Consequently, parts of China are now returning to normality with lockdowns being lifted and a relaxation of social distancing.

Do you have a novel idea of how satellite technology can be used to the fight the battle against COVID-19? ESA has announced funding for companies to deploy space-based services to respond to the current global pandemic. The deadline for applications is the 20th of April.

I’d like to add my thanks and sincere gratitude to our wonderful healthcare professionals who are in the frontline of the fight to keep us all safe. I also wish every one of my readers and the team at EDN good health, and hope my articles on space electronics and satellite applications are keeping you informed during this period of self-isolation!

Dr. Rajan Bedi is the CEO and founder of Spacechips, which provides ultra high-throughput on-board processing and transponder products, design consultancy in space electronics, training, technical-marketing and business-intelligence services. You can also contact Rajan on Twitter.

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