NASA has put a man on the moon, but it hasn’t yet come up with an efficient and accurate way for the International Space Station (ISS) crew to track their diets.
Living in a zero-gravity environment poses the risk of nutrient deficiency and bone loss, so keeping close tabs on food intake in space is crucial. But the ISS crew complain that their meal monitoring methods are unreliable and tedious. Imagine having to recount everything you ate in a week while orbiting the Earth. That’s what astronauts do in a weekly “food frequency questionnaire.”
But diet logging isn’t rocket science, so NASA is turning to “the crowd” for help. The NASA International Space Station Food Intake Tracker—or ISS FIT—Challenge, launched February 10, is the latest open-innovation contest sponsored by the NASA Tournament Lab—a partnership between NASA, Harvard’s Institute of Qualitative Social Science, and competitive software-development community TopCoder.
NASA’s Jason Crusan, who runs open-innovation projects for the agency, will describe the project at Crowdopolis Big Apple, an industry crowdsourcing meeting in New York on February 27-28. Techonomy got a preview by talking to Crusan’s TopCoder partners who are powering the competition.
The challenge seeks to design, develop, and produce an iPad application to enable astronauts living on the space station to easily and seamlessly track their nutritional intake. In a video interview with TopCoder, NASA astronaut Donald Petit, who lived on the space station for 13 months, explains some of the obstacles posed by life in space for such a tool. As social media-savvy space station inhabitants (like @Cmdr_Hadfield and @Astro_Ron) have already learned, typing on an iPad keyboard can be cumbersome in a weightless environment where merely tapping on the screen pushes the device and the astronaut in opposite directions. Scanning instead of typing might work since most space-food packages have bar codes, but some are stamped on shiny curved surfaces while others are printed on thin crinkled paper wrapped around freeze-dried items. A voice recognition tool might seem logical, but there’s loud background noise up there—“think being trapped inside an RV with 30 high-powered fans,” says a TopCoder exec. Oh, and iPads in space don’t have a real-time Internet connection.
TopCoder’s Andy LaMora, senior vice president for government platforms, points to two more obstacles: The iPad 3’s accelerometer is sensitive to gravity so that it can sense which way is “down”—a concept that is meaningless in space. Weightless, the iPad’s camera won’t focus as usual. And, food labels are printed in numerous languages. The Russians and European Space Agency also send up food.
The first of 16 ISS FIT sub-competitions is already over. To generate ideas for voice-command software, 26 competitors from 16 countries submitted 12 ideas. NASA stakeholders chose a winner. Additional competitions to generate ideas for barcode scanning and face-object recognition, and to develop wireframes, a screen design, a system architecture, and more for the ISS FIT app will wrap up by late May.
LaMora says most of the 16 sub-contests award $1,500 for first place and $750 for second. Some challenges will name up to five winners, aiming to generate even more ideas. Competitors can also earn TopCoder digital points. Those, LaMora explains, are comparable to the NASCAR, Grandmaster Chess, or PGA point systems whereby even contestants who don’t place in a particular challenge are eligible for cash rewards. TopCoder pays out top positions in the pool each month. Another reason people compete in TopCoder challenges is for the rating and score their submissions get: “It’s free of charge and it’s the most detailed peer review you could get,” LaMora says.
When will the final diet-tracking product reach the space station? LaMora says, “This isn’t something they can put on iTunes and have the astronauts install.” He says it could be a year before ISS crew get their hands on it, after a rigorous review including ground testing, and perhaps a test run in a gravity simulator airplane on a parabolic flight.
Like many applications developed for space, this one, spaceman Petit points out, could also be useful to people who want to track their diets here on Earth. LaMora agrees: “Almost everything the NASA Tournament Lab develops is open source, so at some point in the future this could very well be deployed for anyone to use. If it’s made robust enough to run on the International Space Station you can use it anywhere.”