I dropped in last week on an educational workshop being held at the Vancouver office of SAP Canada. 40 Grade 6 to 9 students and their teachers from local schools were engaged in a hands-on project called Living Space. As I moved about their workspace, I noted that the students and teachers were coding tiny programmable computers and connecting sensor arrays. The sensors were monitoring environmental conditions like temperature, relative humidity and CO2. There was a buzz in the room and I sensed that the learning was fun and effective.
I am a big fan of hands-on, experiential learning
Living Space is a national experiment centered around the upcoming International Space Station expedition of David Saint-Jacques. It is a collaboration between the Canadian Space Agency, Let’s Talk Science and CanCode. Using the provided sensors, the Vancouver-area students will collect environmental data over the next months from their classrooms and compare them with similar measurements from 1,300 other participating classrooms across Canada. David will provide the students with data from the International Space Station. Students will use all this information to learn how environmental factors can impact mental and physical health.
Monitoring of living spaces is not only important for health on Earth, but also in space. I gained experience monitoring environmental conditions during my six-month expedition. I would periodically collect air samples to assess the quality of the cabin air that my crewmates and I were breathing, and water samples to assess the purity of the water that we were drinking. I sampled surfaces inside the Station to check for the growth of bacteria and fungi. And I used dosimeters to measure the levels of onboard noise and ionizing radiation. While I was able to perform some analyses onboard, air and water samples were sent to the ground for definitive analysis.
Sampling and testing potable water aboard the International Space Station
As spacecraft venture further into deep space, future astronauts will depend on advanced sensor systems to accurately and autonomously monitor the habitat environment. What do I mean by ‘deep space’? Well, we will soon see a mini-space-station in place near the Moon and a research station on the lunar surface. Once these bases have been established, astronauts will head off on daring missions to explore an asteroid and the Martian moons Phobos and Deimos. On later flights, we will see astronauts exploring the surface of Mars. This is not science fiction; mission scenarios are now being developed by a group of nations, including Canada.
Exploration of deep space will be unlike any missions we have conducted in the past. We will need to re-think flight operations. A flight to Mars, for instance, will be a 400-million-kilometer journey from Earth. This distance is so extreme that astronauts on the red planet will experience a twenty-minute delay in their voice-and-data communications with mission controllers on Earth. And due to this distance, resupply of the crew with consumables (water, air, food) and cargo (medical supplies, replacement parts, clothes) will be limited.
Reduced oversight and support from the ground mean that future missions will become more independent. With limited monitoring and control by flight controllers, onboard systems must function more autonomously. Future crews will rely more on their own abilities and onboard resources to solve problems.
I like to think that one of the students participating in the Living Space project will someday design an enhanced environmental monitoring system for the Mars vehicle and habitat. Such a system would be a great asset to future space travelers by including artificial intelligence (AI) and real-time analysis of data.
A mission to Mars will be a daunting undertaking requiring AI-enabled technologies and autonomous operations
When I was young, I regularly watched the Star Trek series on TV. The futuristic technologies used by the crew of the USS Enterprise caught my attention but I never imagined they would exist in my lifetime. For instance, Dr. McCoy’s tricorder – a handheld, wireless medical device – was amazing. As McCoy scanned a patient, his tricorder displayed the patient’s vital signs and diagnosed the ailment.
The medical tricorder – don’t leave Earth without one!
Well, 23rd century science fiction has become 21st century science fact. Medical tricorders exist today. A digital health and medical AI company from Canada named Cloud DX has already developed a tricorder that diagnoses 19 medical conditions and measures five vital signs. It is remarkable technology that will drive lower healthcare costs and improve medical outcomes in remote locations. Biosensor systems like Cloud DX’s tricorder could help astronauts of the future (as well as Canadians living in the remote north) manage their health, well-being and fitness.
At the conclusion of the Living Space workshop, SAP Canada announced a $300,000 investment in the development of digital literacy skills. Outstanding! SAP’s exemplary support will enable Let’s Talk Science to further develop STEM curricula for Canadian youth and to engage thousands of students across Canada in the Living Space national project.
I am pleased when companies like SAP step forward and invest in youth education. I asked SAP president Andy Canham why his company made such a generous donation. Andy replied that the demand in Canada for employees with ICT (Information and Communications Technology) skills is rapidly outpacing the supply. In particular, there is a huge need in our country for information systems analysts, network operators and computer programmers.
To address the growing deficit of talent and skills, SAP Canada wishes to offer opportunities for Canadian youth to thrive in a digital economy. Programs like Living Space will provide school-aged children with hands-on skills in coding as well as experiences in analytical thinking and problem-solving. And for some of the students, it may kick-start an interest in a rewarding ICT career. Digital skills will also play a role by developing needed monitoring technologies and thus enable deep space exploration.
Thank you to all the sponsors of the Living Space program. This unique program will bring science, exploration and coding together in an engaging fashion. For the participating students, the experience will be out of this world.