SALT LAKE CITY — The same technology used to detect burglars in a home can now sense whether someone is breathing, making it potentially useful in hospitals and homes with a new baby, as well as in emergency situations.
The masterminds behind tiny electromagnetic radio devices developed at the University of Utah believe a series of these radio transceivers could be used to noninvasively detect breathing among post-surgery patients, people with sleep apnea and babies at risk for sudden infant death syndrome.
"I really believe we're at the tip of the iceberg at what we can do," said Joey Wilson, a U. grad and founder and CEO of Xandem Technology, a university spin-off that markets the technology being used to see through walls.
Wilson said multiple transceivers send harmless radio waves back and forth, allowing for the detection of disturbances in the available frequencies. When such a disturbance is detected, it would notify users whether someone has stopped breathing or something is abnormal about the movement of a person's chest.
"We are only changing our size by an inch maybe, when we're breathing in or out," said Neal Patwari, assistant professor of electrical engineering at the U. Even though the breathing movement is small, he said the links between a series of radios can and will detect it.
The innovation came as somewhat of a surprise to researchers, who had previously been fine-tuning the tiny motion detectors to sense human movement.
The hardware is not new and is used in cell phones and other wireless applications, including some that the military already uses, according to Wilson. He said radar technologies that use very high bandwidths and very fast signals can detect breathing behind a wall, but are very expensive, large and use a lot of power.
"They don't make a lot of sense in an application where costs need to be low or where it needs to be unobtrusive," he said.
The new version is approximately the size of a portable flash drive and is also connected to a power source via USB. Wilson envisions the 2-inch-long computer chips being manufactured into the plastic of baby cribs or hospital beds to make them most useful to consumers.
It will likely be at least five years before the product is available to the public, and while the American Academy of Pediatrics has said there is "no evidence that home monitors are effective" for preventing SIDS, the organization does recognize that monitors may be helpful with rapid detection of breathing problems.
The initial technology was developed in 2009 and Patwari and Wilson are now toying with the possibility of using the wireless transceivers to find survivors in a building collapse or other emergency situation. Rescue workers could potentially use the technology to locate people still breathing in the rubble, Patwari said.
"The point of our lab is to try to find other uses for wireless networks besides just sending data back and forth," he said, adding that in addition to the rescue application, finding people indoors and monitoring breathing, researchers are constantly trying to find ways to make wireless networks more secure.