Canadian Smart Fashion Startup Shoots for the Stars, Lands on the International Space Station

A Canadian wearable tech startup that shot for the stars has successfully landed on the International Space Station.

Montreal-based Hexoskin, a leader in smart shirt technology, marked an exciting milestone when its wearable Astroskin, a smart fabric with real-time physiology monitoring, arrived at the space station aboard SpaceX CRS-16, a commercial resupply services mission in December.

An undisclosed number of these smart shirts will be worn by astronauts over the next six years, including Canada’s David Saint-Jacques, who rocketed to the space station aboard a Soyuz spacecraft.

Saint-Jacques, who is on his first space mission, deployed and began testing the technology referred to as the Bio-Monitor System last week.

Astroskin is designed to monitor an astronauts’ health and enable new science by continuously measuring physiological data. It can be worn during sleep and exercise. Astroskin has three components: a smart shirt made from stretchy materials, a head sensor that resembles a sweatband and a small recording device tucked into a pocket of the shirt. Five embedded sensors monitor the wearers’ blood oxygen levels, heart and breathing rates, blood pressure, activity and skin temperature. The sensors are powered by two AA batteries. To ensure continuous monitoring, the astronauts will replace the batteries every 48 hours over the next six years.

Data gathered is transmitted back to Earth where scientists monitor the astronauts’ health as they orbit the planet. This technology will be used to gain a better understanding of the impact space travel has on the body, including insights into sleep, circadian rhythm, blood pressure, vital signs and ageing.

Hexoskin founder’s Jean-François Roy and Pierre-Alexandre Fournier, both alumni of Montreal Polytechnique engineering faculty, have been developing garments with embedded sensor technology since 2006. The company is backed by a group of Canadian angel investors.

In 2011, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) awarded the company a contract to deliver a prototype version of the system that would eventually become Astroskin. They wanted to build a wearable suitable for space travel. Seven years later, Astroskin was ready for orbit.

“For Hexoskin, working with CSA means we can demonstrate our technology in the ultimate remote health monitoring scenario — space travel,” says Fournier.

To ensure Astroskin was ready for its space debut, Hexoskin ran a series of validation studies, certifications, and safety tests in Canada and the United States under the supervision of the CSA and NASA.

One of the challenges the Hexoskin team faced was designing a wearable that wouldn’t encumber daily life in space. It tackled that challenge by making the components less bulky and more flexible. This will allow continuous monitoring and will enable astronauts to perform new experiments that were previously difficult to execute.

The new technologies being developed will have applications on Earth as well, says Fournier.

“If we can automate monitoring and diagnosis, we will be able to improve access to health care for patients with chronic diseases and those who live in remote areas. This is very important in the context of population ageing and our desire to offer care to everyone in society,” he says.

This isn’t the first time advanced materials have played a role in space travel. In Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo author Nicholas de Monchaux highlights the spacesuits U.S. astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin wore when they stepped onto the lunar surface in July of 1969. The suits, made by Playtex, had 21 layers of fabric, each with a distinct yet interrelated function, custom-sewn by seamstresses from the bra and girdle company.

More research into smart material and fabrics is needed if humans plan to forge ahead into the final frontier, say experts in the field.

Joanna Berzowska, the Associate Dean of Research in the Faculty of Fine Arts at Concordia University in Montreal, who researches electronic textiles similar to Hexoskin’s Astroskin, says space travel, in a more universally accessible way, will not be possible without smart materials and fabrics.

“Travelling in space will put great stress on the human body, and it must be protected, monitored, connected, and nourished. Textiles naturally conform to the body and can provide the most seamless interface between computer systems that can monitor and react to the needs of human bodies in space,” Berzowska says.

This article by Amanda Cosco originally appeared in the Toronto Star.

Amanda Cosco
Amanda is a freelance journalist and consultant focused on the intersection of fashion and technology and the founder of Electric Runway.

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