Smart Carpet Keeps Track of Patients When Caregivers Can’t

A University of Missouri professor has developed a “smart carpet” that monitors the movements of elderly persons and can detect the potential for a dangerous fall. The project received funding from the Alzheimer’s Association.

The purpose of the flooring system is to help patients remain both independent and safe unobtrusively. With sensors under the carpet and electronics that monitor and communicate walking activity, “the floor sends data to a computer that crunches the data for useful information,” said the system’s inventor, Mizzou professor of electrical and computer engineering Harry Tyrer, Jr.

Such useful information includes movements consistent with stumbling or falling.

Tyrer’s research team, which includes four graduate students, is working on assessing the risk of injury associated with different types of falls and on programming the carpet system to differentiate between them. Earlier this year, they developed a working prototype, and are presently looking to shrink the prototype’s electronics down to the size of a cell phone.

With a computer system that costs US$99, Tyrer and team hope to ensure patients and their families can afford the smart carpet.

“One of the strengths of the smart carpet is computer processing,” explained Myra Aud, an associate professor at the University of Missouri Sinclair School of Nursing who has examined the carpet prototype.

“When the carpet’s sensors are triggered, a signal is sent to the computer. What happens next is only a matter of choice and programming,” she explained. “Theoretically, it could activate an alarm that awakens a caregiver, a telephone link to an offsite caregiver, or other devices.”

Impact and Inspiration

Although his smart carpet does not use transistors — yet — Tyrer told TechNewsWorld the transistor research of Annalisa Bonfiglio, an associate professor of electronics and electronic bioengineering at the University of Cagliari, Italy, inspired him.

“Annalisa is working ona ‘flexible field effect’ transistor whose current reduces under the influence of pressure,” Tyrer said. That reduction in electrical current might be utilized as a means to send a signal. “She will eventually produce a flexible film of pressure-sensitive transistors.”

The fall-sensitive flooring inspires Aud, an eldercare researcher, not only because of its ability to detect danger, but also because of its potential to impact the independence of Alzheimer’s patients, who grow increasingly dependent on caregivers as their disease progresses.

“The carpet sensors could be used to monitor the location of persons with Alzheimer’s disease,” Aud told TechNewsWorld.

Family members who care for Alzheimer’s patients at home often worry their loved one will wander away from home while they are asleep, she said. “On carpet placed near an exit door, the sensors could detect the person with Alzheimer’s approach, and send a signal to awaken caregivers.”

Strategically situated smart flooring could also reduce its cost. “It could be placed in one room, a hallway leading to an exit, a pathway where falls have occurred before, or multiple rooms,” Aud said.

Eldercare Market

Once market-ready, the smart carpet would join “a variety of products marketed to older adults and their caregivers that range from assisted-living devices for the visually-impaired or hearing-impaired to devices that summon assistance when activated,” Aud explained. “I’m sure you have seen commercials or advertisements for necklaces where the pendant has a button that, when pushed, calls a security company, for instance.”

Efforts to prepare the smart carpet for market introduction will start with residential tests, followed by addressing affordability and installation, Aud said.

“The smart carpet has only been tested in the controlled environment of Dr. Tyrer’s lab,” she noted. “For the first of these residential setting tests, we plan to place it on top of whatever floor covering is in the residence, with overlay edges securely anchored to prevent tripping.”

Hardwoods and other floor coverings could be next, and represent what Tyrer called “an interesting problem,” though “we are not sure that starting with carpet was any easier.”

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