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NASA’s JPL open-sources an anti-face-touching wearable to help reduce the spread of COVID-19

There are some wearables out there in the world that are making claims around COVID-19 and their ability to detect it, prevent it, certify that you don’t have it and more. But a new wearable device from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory might actually be able to do the most to prevent the spread of COVID-19 — and it’s not really all that technically advanced or complicated.

JPL’s PULSE wearable uses 3D-printed parts and readily available, affordable electronic components to do just one thing: remind a person not to touch their face. JPL’s designers claim that it’s simple enough that the gadget “can easily be reproduced by anyone regardless of their level of expertise,” and to encourage more people and companies to actually do that, the lab has made available a full list of parts, 3D modeling files and full instructions for its assembly via an open-source license.

The PULSE is essentially a pendant, worn around the neck between six inches and one foot from the head. It can detect when a person’s hand is approaching their face using an IR-based proximity sensor. A vibration motor then shakes out an alert, and the response becomes stronger as your hand gets closer to your face.

The hardware itself is simple — but that’s the point. It’s designed to run on readily available 3V coin batteries, and if you have a 3D printer at hand for the case and access to Amazon, you can probably put one together yourself at home in no time.

The goal of PULSE obviously isn’t to single-handedly eliminate COVID-19 — contact transmission from contaminated hands to a person’s mouth, nose or eyes is just one vector, and it seems likely that respiratory droplets that result in airborne transmission is at least as effective at passing the virus around. But just like regular mask-wearing can dramatically reduce transmission risk, minimizing how often you touch your face can have a big combined effect with other measures taken to reduce the spread.

Other health wearables might actually be able to tell you when you have COVID-19 before you show significant symptoms or have a positive test result — but work still needs to be done to understand how well those work, and how they could be used to limit exposure. JPL’s PULSE has the advantage of being effective now in terms of building positive habits that we know will limit the spread of COVID-19, as well as other viral infections.

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NASA’s Curiosity team is operating the Mars rover from home

It’s hard enough in the first place having to drive an astronomically expensive rover around a planet millions of miles away. Doing it from home seems like a pretty big ask — but it turns out NASA’s Curiosity team is up to it.

The space agency posted today about how the team has adapted to the unprecedented situation of having to manage an important, ongoing mission involving hundreds of people, without any of those people meeting in person.

“We’re usually all in one room, sharing screens, images and data,” said team lead Alicia Allbaugh. Now they’re not only in separate rooms, but on different schedules and computing setups. “I probably monitor about 15 chat channels at all times. You’re juggling more than you normally would.”

Naturally there are video calls, too — sometimes several at once. Processes previously accomplished on high-performance workstations are now being done on laptops and web services. But while the added complexity makes the planning process less efficient, the results are still rolling in.

In mid-March, the Jet Propulsion Lab offices in Pasadena, Calif., had already been totally emptied of staff and work was suspended elsewhere. But Curiosity was still trucking. It drove up to a rock, drilled a sample and sent confirmation back to the team — just as it would if they were all working as normal. And the work continues.

“Mars isn’t standing still for us; we’re still exploring,” said Allbaugh.

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