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Technology providing a guiding light in an emergency

Alumni News

Curtin alumnus Con Michael has developed a product that is set to revolutionise emergency response management. It’s set to make a real difference for first responders in the field, and it’s already winning national awards as a result.

The Balconi Smart Torch, now being trialled with St John Ambulance.

It all began in 2015, when Michael’s company, Balconi became aware that St John Ambulance had a problem requiring a very specific solution. First responders situated in rural and remote areas, although undergoing continuous training, typically aren’t trained to the same level as career paramedics. In order to help provide support, instruction and advice to these first responders, St John wanted video to work reliably over satellite.

“There are instances, as you would appreciate, where the first responder’s level of expertise is challenged, and it happens very quickly when they arrive at a scene. They have to make decisions in a very short timeframe and making the wrong decision, or not making a decision in time, can have negative consequences”, Michael explains.

“Previously, they [St John] had tried using satellite phones to describe the scenario, but how do you describe a real-life emergency situation over the phone? You can’t. The stress levels are high.”

“They wanted the ability to access a live broadcast to make what they call a ‘situational awareness decision’ to ensure patient stabilisation. They’re not necessarily going to fix them, they’ve just got to stabilise them so they can get them to a helicopter or to the nearest emergency department”, says Michael.

And so began the inception of the ‘Balconi Smart Torch Global Live’, a handheld two-way video conference system for remote areas to connect globally.

After numerous meetings, it became evident there were both prerequisites and limitations that Michael and his team needed to consider throughout the product development stage, including a restricted budget, and the need for the technology to be small, reliable, waterproof and lightweight, while still being able to deliver quality video using limited bandwidth.

Michael worked tirelessly and in collaboration with tech company Vivotek to develop a prototype based on existing hardware and software currently available on the market, and adapting it to ‘meet the brief’.

Balconi spent around 100 hours via Skype with the developer at Vivotek, based in Taiwan.

“For a researcher like myself, you can’t do it alone. You need collaboration”, Michael says.

What resulted is a technology that provides the most remote and disadvantaged communities with access to medical specialists from around the globe. Suitable for Wi-Fi, 4G, 3G, VSAT and Inmarsat BGAN networks, it’s small enough to be handheld or tripod mounted, and can also be mounted to a vehicle. It features hands-free audio, headset operation and not only captures live video that can be saved to a memory stick for playback at a later time, but is also able to capture high definition images that can be emailed to staff at the command centre to help them provide the first responder with tailored emergency advice and training. What’s more, it comes complete with night vision and is even waterproof.

Man at awards ceremony.

Curtin alumnus and inventor of the Balconi Smart Torch, Con Michael.

There’s no doubt that the Smart Torch is set to become a beacon in the field of emergency response management, already winning a number of awards at the 2017 National iAwards, including Innovation of the Year, National Winner Community Services Markets and National Merit Recipient Mobility Innovation of the Year, along with Winner Most Impactful Collaborative Technology and Winner Most Impactful Social Benefit at the 2017 WAITTA Incite Awards. In addition, Michael himself was recognised as the 2017 Most Innovative Engineer by Engineers Australia for the Balconi Smart Torch.

The future for Balconi looks bright. Along with the development of the prototype, Michael’s team is currently working on similar technology in the form of a specialised app for the United Nations.

“What we’ve developed for the UN is a smart phone app. They work with a range of medical specialists that provide services, and of course traditionally they had to go to the office to do anything. So the idea is that a first-aider on the ground in Nairobi is able to contact the UN command centre who will then source assistance from a specialist in London, who can essentially ‘join the conversation’. Like a Skype call but operating at really low bandwidth”.

Michael, a Bachelor of Applied Science and Bachelor of Engineering graduate, has also mentored Curtin engineering students and continues to remain part of the University community in an effort to enhance opportunities for the next generation of engineers.


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