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Seeing Clearly And Saving Lives

By | October 1, 2007

      When it comes to health care, satellites play an increasingly important role. The scope of this activity is enormous and growing, as innovative professionals seek out new and better ways to improve lives, and in many instances, save lives via improved emergency medical response. This involves an ongoing effort to identify and share ideas about how satellite technology can be tapped effectively so that better health care and emergency response strategies emerge.

      In August, we looked at how satellite latency seems to have no adverse impact on surgeons conducting robotic telesurgery. Researchers recommended that satellite links of no less than 5 megabits per second (Mbps) be used.

      It turns out that a team of experts from the University of Pittsburgh has been doing research on a “bio-inspired bandwidth reduction solution for high quality telesurgery video transmission via satellite,” according to Jian Xu, a doctoral candidate doing research at the Laboratory for Computational Neuroscience (LCN). In late August, this research team presented a paper outlining their work in Lyon, France at the 29th annual international conference of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society.

      Their work involves use of a gray-level map and an eye-tracking device to determine exactly where the surgeon’s eyes are pointing. The device sits atop the monitor used by the surgeon and helps identify exactly what the surgeon is focusing upon — a precise spot known as the “gaze point.” Pixels are then assigned a value and those within the “gaze point” have the highest values. The idea is to beam back to the surgeon in high resolution only the very small region of the image which corresponds to the highest assigned value.

      “Our video preprocessing method is designed so that the bandwidth needed for transmitting the high-resolution video can be greatly reduced,” says Xu. “In our experiments, about 50 percent of bandwidth can be saved.”

      This is a specialized variation of so-called “region of interest” (ROI) video coding, where the allocated bandwidth for the background and the ROI are assigned differently. The aim is to increase the quality within the ROI at the expense of the quality in the background.

      Away from the realm of telesurgery, there is significant progress being made in Europe in an effort intended to help pilots of rescue helicopters see exactly where they are going in bad weather. In Switzerland, a trial of an enhanced GPS system which improves GPS-based guidance via the European Geostationary Navigation Overlay Service (EGNOS) is wrapping up. EGNOS uses geostationary satellites and advanced terminals to beam positional data with better than 2-meter accuracy so that rescue helicopter pilots and other personnel can safely access landing zones in very low visibility conditions. Besides satellite navigation equipment, a majority of rescue helicopters worldwide now fly with satellite phones and more and more are using satellite data terminals for a variety of purposes.

      In Massachusetts, GPS and geographic information system (GIS)-enabled dispatch technology is improving routine health care services offered by the third largest hospital-owned pathology lab in the United States, says Ric Skinner, senior GIS coordinator at the Health Geographics Program at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield. This enables dispatchers and other personnel to see exactly what is unfolding in the field.

      Baystate Home Infusion & Respiratory Services can ensure faster patient deliveries by locating patients, optimizing delivery routes and tracking delivery vehicles via GPS. As an added benefit, patients can be notified of the exact delivery times of their inbound equipment. This can be extremely important for chronically ill patients. In addition, drivers do not get lost, and the whole system is better organized, says Skinner.

      Finally, a research team in Europe that includes medical, electronics engineering and computer science experts from six countries is working on a two-year, European Union-funded program called the Complete Ambient Assisted Living Experiment. The goal is to develop a GPS-based, lightweight, reliable and robust tracking and emergency alert device.

      Given that one-way and interactive video as well as other data streams are seen as having an important role to play, broadband satellite might play a significant role in rural areas in particular due to the fact that monitoring of the home and patient involves multiple devices and sensors. In Ireland, the University of Limerick and the National University of Ireland, for example, have developed wearable fall sensors equipped with miniature integrated accelerometers and gyroscopes.

      So satellites can help people see exactly what is going on, and that is good for your health in so many ways.

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