Out-of-this-world technology has the potential to save Irish lives


23 Apr 2009

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Technology developed for astronauts working in the Earth’s orbit is being deployed by Dublin fire brigades and could soon go live countrywide.

The technology, created by Irish software company Skytek and perfected in outer space by NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA), is being used by Dublin Fire Brigade to combat accidents such as fires and road incidents.

Skytek’s iPV (International Procedural Viewer) technology was developed to assist astronauts in controlling and managing emergency situations on-board the International Space Station. It will now be used to help combat accidents such as fires and road incidents in Dublin.

“Safety and speed are crucial in dealing with any emergency situation,” says Richard Hedderman of Dublin Fire Brigade.

“By equipping our members with the latest technology, we can avoid time delays and ensure injured parties are getting the best possible care.

“We pre-plan emergency situations for dealing with major incidences in hospitals, hotels, Dublin Port Tunnel, etc. This system means our firefighters have access to key plans on their way to incidents and at the scene of accidents,” he adds.

“Since every situation is different – ranging from fires to chemical and biological hazards – it is important those dealing with the situation have the correct procedures and information to hand. By electronically capturing the details of each accident site, we will also have access to real-time updated data to help build a complete picture of emergencies as they happen.

“The equipment on trial in North Strand and Swords has been very positively received,” adds Hedderman.

Over the past year, Skytek has worked with Dublin Fire Brigade to adapt the technology known as APEX (Advanced Procedure Executor) to provide emergency personnel with immediate access to disaster procedures and plans via a mobile computer.

The mobile system will store key information such as hazardous chemical data, as well as emergency evacuation plans and procedures for key sites such as hospitals, factories and hotels.

APEX will also provide key information on the potential hazards associated with vehicles.

Due to the presence of explosives in airbags, high-voltage batteries and new hybrid-car technologies, the removal of an injured person can be extremely hazardous to both emergency crews and the victim. Knowing just where a vehicle can or cannot be cut apart is vital.

Emergency crews can now access and review key data on vehicle layouts, location of the nearest fire hydrants and floor plans etc, all while en route to the scene of an accident or fire.

Commenting on the trial, Dr Sarah Bourke, Skytek, says: “As with many innovations, this technology was originally developed for space missions.

“It shows how an Irish company can successfully undertake innovation at the highest level and then successfully commercialise it in the international marketplace.”

The project was partly funded by Enterprise Ireland and the ESA under its technology transfer to industry programme.

“This is an excellent example of how space technology can benefit society,” says Dr David Raitt of the ESA.

“This technology has been rigorously tested under extreme situations for reliability. By harnessing these developments, huge leaps can be achieved in efficiency, safety and in saving lives.”

Dr Bourke explains that if the trial in Dublin is successful, it’s anticipated that the technology will eventually be rolled out across all 22 of Ireland’s fire brigade divisions.

Skytek employs 10 people in Dublin and is privately funded. She says that while the company has been offered venture capital, it intends to remain a private venture.

Skytek is also hard at work on taking popular social-networking technologies and adapting them for use by the space industry.

The company is involved in the creation of a social-networking platform, enabling workers at the ESA’s Centre for Earth Observation (ESRIN) to share knowledge.

Dr Bourke says the software will allow workers at ESRIN to share data across a variety of methods, from blogs to videos, images and even Twitter feeds.

ESRIN is one of the five ESA specialised centres dotted around Europe. Located south of Rome, it was established in 1966 and first began acquiring data from environmental satellites in the Seventies.

Earth-observation data has grown in importance, as more and more international and national agencies recognise its many applications.

Satellites for Earth observation keep a constant watch over the planet and the data they provide helps to safeguard it.

“ESRIN will be a very strong test site for the system. We want to change the way that major space projects are planned. The idea is to take the way workers would manage their personal Bebo or Facebook profiles and bring that methodology into a business environment.

“At present, ESRIN will use it, but our ambition is that it will be used across the ESA.

“If proven, it will be a great success story for Skytek, and hopefully could be rolled into other major international projects,” Dr Bourke concludes.

By John Kennedy

Pictured: Richard Hedderman, Dublin Fire Brigade; Dr David Raitt, ESA; and Dr Sarah Bourke, Skytek