Long-distance disaster assistance

A laptop and a helmet mounted with 2 small video cameras.
Helmet connects paramedics to expert help

Innovative device created in Abdulmotaleb El Saddik’s virtual reality lab will allow first responders in the Far North and rural regions to save more lives.

All disasters are not created equal. Traffic accident victims, for example, face better odds when collisions occur in dense urban areas close to major hospitals. In far northern and remote rural regions, ambulance crews may have less training and specialized care is likely farther away. But getting prompt medical attention, within the “golden hour,” is key to saving lives.

Is there a way to offset this geographic disadvantage? That’s the question that Toronto-based company Monroe Solutions asked uOttawa engineering professor Abdulmotaleb El Saddik.

The Trauma Stabilization Headset

His ingenious answer was to modify a regular construction helmet to equip it with a 3D visual feed, two-way audio connection and even tactile communications. The device can instantly link isolated paramedics to medical specialists in an emergency room hundreds or even thousands of kilometres away.

“The 3D vision system enables a doctor to advise the person on the scene how to deal with the trauma and how to move the patient, to increase the chances of survival,” El Saddik explained.

The device also allows paramedics on the scene to perform tasks normally associated with physician assistants, such as advanced resuscitation and other medical procedures they are usually only permitted to perform under a doctor’s supervision. What’s more, it gives paramedics the ability to do time-sensitive procedures, such as episiotomies for women in labour on their way to the hospital, which would benefit women wherever they live.

Yang Liu, a uOttawa alumnus whose master’s thesis describes the helmet’s development, adds: “When the patient’s situation is complicated, this helmet is especially useful.”

A tailored solution for first responders

Creating a streamlined, user-friendly solution that wouldn’t add complexity for paramedics demanded detailed planning and problem-solving in the lab.

First, the researchers had to pick a delivery system, which was not obvious. For example, while a front-pocket-mounted box would be hands-free, its chest-high view of the scene could be disorienting for experts in the control room. And so, after rejecting other possibilities, researchers settled on a helmet as the best delivery system.

The depth perception offered by 3D vision is critical for many life-saving procedures. Researchers wrestled with where to place the helmet’s two cameras to best replicate stereoscopic vision. Complex calibration was required to shrink the distance between forehead and eye level to give the distant medical experts the same view of the scene as the onsite paramedics.

These efforts produced a remarkable result. The 3D vision permits the remote advisers to see, for example, the depth of a wound or whether a patient’s shoulder is dislocated. However, transmitting such stereoscopic images in real time requires vast bandwidth, compelling researchers to enhance video compression.

The helmet also incorporates “haptic” technology, one of El Saddik’s areas of expertise. This allows tactile sensations to be transmitted, offering an alternative to audio communication. In noisy situations, for example, vibrating sensors can be used to instruct paramedics to move in a certain direction, or warn of dangers.

Patent pending

The 3D helmet, which is in the process of being patented, is part of a suite of multimedia medical devices developed at El Saddik’s virtual reality lab at uOttawa. It could potentially be used with other remote-operated technologies, such as a robot arm equipped with haptic feedback to enable doctors to suture wounds from afar.

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