Technology transfer is good for your health

The Engineer

First the good news. Those of us lucky enough to be born in the developed world are, on average, living longer. Indeed, according to some predictions, a child born today in Western Europe can expect to live to 100. It’s a remarkable testament to the progress of medical science. But, as Leeds University’s Prof John Fisher points out in a fascinating interview there’s a worrying flipside to the West’s burgeoning longevity. Currently, 69 per cent of the UK’s over-85s suffer from a long-standing illness or disability, and while many more of us are expected to make it to this grand old age there are few signs that we’ll do so unscathed.

And this is where engineers come in. According to Fisher, on the long march from 50 to 100 years a person will average 100 million steps. That’s a punishing number of cycles to put any component through. But by adopting an engineer’s approach to the problem we might, he claims, stand half a chance. Fisher’s unusual route into the healthcare sector, via the automotive and defence industries, certainly gives him a fresh perspective on the challenges of an ageing population. But his career path is also a reminder that engineering challenges are rarely solved in isolation; methods, solutions and technologies developed in one sector frequently have their biggest impact elsewhere.

This vital process is at its intriguing best in the steady flow of ideas from the space sector to the word of healthcare. From advanced materials for new joint replacements, to kidney dialysis, CAT scanning and remote health monitoring, space industry engineers have provided the medical world with a constant stream of innovations and life-saving technologies.

Some might be surprised that this technology flow exists at all. But the space and healthcare sectors share many of the same technical challenges. Indeed, as our intriguing report on robot surgery reveals, advances in surgical technology often owe a great deal to advances made for the space industry. And while the application areas couldn’t be more different, the challenges of operating a robot in space and operating a robot inside the human body are remarkably similar: both demand precision, advanced remote-control capability, and force-feedback technology that can help the operator perform a variety of intricate and deft procedures.

The down-to-earth value of technology originally developed for the space industry is a point we return to frequently in The Engineer and advancing medical science is just one of the many positive spin-offs that spring from a desire to explore our cosmos. But with space exploration increasingly bearing the brunt of cash-strapped administrations, it’s a point that should probably be repeated as often and as loudly as possible.