Canada is Bringing Hollywood Technology to Life- Doc in a Box


Theatrical release poster

McGill University and Neptec are working together to develop an operational concept called the Advanced Crew Medical System (ACMS). Commonly referred to among Neptec employees as “Doc in a Box,” this technology is similar to technology seen in the movie Passengers, which was released in December.

In the movie, (spoiler alert – stop reading now if you don’t want to know how the movie ends!) the spacecraft Avalon is transporting colonists to the planet Homestead II. The journey to Homestead II takes 120 years; consequently the passengers and crew are travelling in futuristic hibernation pods which allow them to hibernate until just a few months before their arrival. Unfortunately, one of the pods malfunctions and the main character, Jim Preston is awoken 90 years earlier than planned. Jim spends a year alone on the ship with only a robot bartender to talk to. Lonely and suicidal at the thought of living out the rest of his life alone on the spacecraft Jim awakens another passenger, Aurora. Aurora believes her pod also malfunctioned and after some time she and Jim fall in love. A year later, the robot bartender reveals that Jim woke Aurora up, naturally, she’s incredibly angry at Jim and they live separately on the ship for quite some time. During this time, many of the spacecraft’s features malfunction and it becomes apparent something is terribly wrong. Another pod failure awakens the Chief Deck Officer, Gus. Gus is visibly sick and uses the Autodoc, an automated medical diagnostics and treatment pod to conduct medical tests which show that he is dying and has just a few hours to live. As the story progresses, Jim and Aurora discover why the pods are failing and work together to fix the issue. Jim is critically injured in the process, but Aurora is able to revive the seemingly deceased Jim using the Autodoc.

While the movie is fictitious and we won’t be starting colonies on far-away planets any time soon, elements of the plot ring true. Future human spaceflight missions will extend considerably beyond Low Earth Orbit (the International Space Station is an example of a spacecraft in low earth orbit). This will mean reduced, if not zero, opportunity for the quick return of a sick or injured crewmember back home for medical treatment. The missions will also face considerably increased communications delays between the Crew Medical Officer (CMO) and the ground based Flight Surgeon (FS) and therefore ground-based medical support will be at times impossible. This isolation will require a change in medical support capabilities, from dependence on home base to that of medical autonomy.

The Advanced Crew Medical System (ACMS) being developed by McGill University and Neptec will solve this problem. The ACMS concept is centered on the implementation of an on-spacecraft computer (Doctor in a box) providing the functions of an Electronic Medical Record (EMR) and a clinical Decision Support System (DSS). Continuous monitoring of physiological parameters and activity detectors is provided by a suite of on-astronaut sensors supplemented by diagnostic laboratory and imaging components that integrate to the computer through a wireless network and a data acquisition front-end.  These elements combine to provide exploration-class mission astronauts with a fourth ‘virtual’ crew member (the Doctor in a box) tasked with maintaining their health, mission effectiveness and wellbeing.

The ACMS consists of:

1. A “Doctor in a box”, the box being a computer and the Doctor being the system architecture and software referred to as the Decision Support System (DSS). The two main elements of the DSS are,

a) Clinical Knowledge Base which represents the medical knowledge residing in a doctor’s head as a result of his extensive education and experience;
b) Decision Engine which represents the logical processes a doctor applies to the mapping of patient data onto his knowledge base in order to develop diagnoses of the illness and the decisions regarding treatment(s).

2. The infrastructure used to create the Clinical Knowledge Base and to update it as required.

3. The sensor suite on the Astronaut (including wireless connections into a mesh network) and the lab facilities in the space vehicle.

Similar to Avalon’s Autodoc, the ACMS will use a suite of integrated medical technologies to keep the crew on long duration exploration class missions healthy including:

1. Behaviour and performance measurement tools to assess the mental status of the crew as a whole as well as each individual crewmember and their ability to perform critical and complex tasks in extreme, remote and isolated environments;

2. Remote patient monitoring capabilities including non-invasive, wireless, wearable sensors and data management technologies that provide the CMO as well as medical ground support personnel with vital signs data, situational awareness and the ability to remotely monitor and manage a sick or injured crew member;

3. In situ laboratory capabilities that would allow for point of care, near real time bio assays of biological tissues and fluids analysis for diagnostic purposes;

4. Electronic Medical Record;

5. Intelligent diagnostic systems including computer based clinical decision support systems (DSS) to assist in the prediction or early detection of medical events as well as to expedite differential diagnosis and prescription of treatment protocols;

6. Medical training and simulation technologies to aid in the remote acquisition and maintenance of CMO medical skills during a mission;

7. Diagnostic imaging technologies.

While, space colonization isn’t a reality yet, the future of exploration missions beyond Low Earth Orbit depends on the development of this kind of technology. If you are interested in learning more about the ACMS and other technologies Neptec is currently developing, visit our website

In-Situ Resource Extraction

12th Wednesday, 2016  |  Blog  |  Comments Off on In-Situ Resource Extraction
Photo credit: NASA

Photo credit: Joe Bibby, NASA

Mankind is beginning to explore beyond Low Earth Orbit (the International Space Station is an example of a spacecraft in low earth orbit).  Until now, we have always had to include all of the resources, such as water and fuel that will be needed on a mission in the spacecraft when we launch from Earth. When a mission is launched from the Earth, the majority of energy is expended just breaking through the Earth’s atmosphere and the heavier the vehicle, the more energy consumed. It is very expensive to launch each ounce of resources needed. To use a very simple analogy, ‎consider the value of 1 litre of water on Earth. That same 1 litre on the International Space Station (ISS) is worth approximately $25,000 when the cost of transport is factored in. On the Moon – $250,000. On Mars – much, much more.  As we explore further and further from earth, it will become even more important that we find ways to extract the resources we need at our destination and not rely on carrying everything from earth.


This photo shows the drill on the rover during the 2012 simulated mission. Joe Bibby, NASA

For resources like water; we are in luck. Ice has been detected on both poles of the Moon, and on Mars. People ask “Why do you need water in space?” The answer is threefold. One, water supports life as a drinking source. Two, by breaking it down, it supplies oxygen to breathe. Lastly, by splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen, you can create the most powerful propellant known to man.

NASA has had a mission – Resource Prospector Mission (RPM) – on its mission list since 2000. They recognize that in-situ resource extraction is critical for space exploration.  Because Canada has a rich heritage and considerable expertise in mining and because Canadian companies, including Neptec and Sudbury’s Deltion, have developed technology that could be used to extract resources on the moon or Mars, NASA has invited Canada (through the Canadian Space Agency) to participate in the mission by providing a drilling system. Canada has not yet decided whether it will participate.

With the provision of drill technology, Canada can continue to enjoy its position as the preeminent mining jurisdiction on Earth, while securing a leadership role in space mining for the future.

For more information on NASA’s Resource Prospector mission, click here.

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