8 areas for sensor application prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic

May 19, 2020 Corporate Blog

In the new world, where by touching any surface you risk catching an extremely contagious, deadly infection, the demand for sensors is at its highest.

People wearing protective equipment and waving around gun thermometers at airports have become one of the symbols of the 2020 pandemic. These devices use infrared sensors to measure the surface temperature of a person from a safe distance.

As part of the drive to save lives and re-launch the economy, the world is being nudged towards exploring the use of sensors in more detail. This article offers a look at eight possible applications of sensors in the post-pandemic reality.

1. Infection detection

The method of detecting people with respiratory symptoms is reaching a whole new level as the pandemic progresses.

Municipalities are trying to get the most out of the thermal sensors’ ability to remotely identify individuals with elevated body temperature.

The Australian Government Department of Defence, the University of South Australia, and the police of Westford, CT, have partnered with the Canadian drone company Draganfly Inc. to develop “pandemic drones.”

These drones use sensors and computer vision in public spaces to:

  • monitor people’s temperature, heart and breathing rates, and
  • detect symptoms like coughing and sneezing.

The risk of an outbreak is especially high for organizations where people spend a lot of time in close contact with each other. Given that, it is no surprise that the army is at the forefront of introducing more advanced sensing devices.

The US Army Soldier Lethality Cross-Functional Team has recently tested the prototype of the Integrated Visual Augmentation System (IVAS) to detect fever. The high-speed goggles, engineered by Microsoft, use digital thermal sensors, which the team has successfully adapted for this purpose.

However, checking on each individual in a crowd is not always an option. A new sensor developed by a Swiss research team can analyze the air for concentrations of the coronavirus in a busy location in real-time.

2. Individual health monitoring

By using sensors to monitor individual people’s health, you can prevent and track the development of a disease.

MIT engineers have recently pioneered the Electronic Textile Comfortable Suit (E-TeCS), a technique of creating garments embedded with sensors that can measure your vital body signals such as temperature, movement, and heart and respiration rates.

Profusa, a biotechnology company, took that a step further. Since late 2019, they have been developing a biosensor that’s injected under the skin to detect flu by up to three weeks earlier than current methods.

This project is funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the research arm of the US Department of Defense. Profusa hopes to win FDA approval in early 2021.

3. Emergency care

The ability of sensors to collect and send data about a person’s physical state in real-time can reduce the emergency response time and literally save lives.

This could be crucial for elderly patients. At the start of the pandemic, Israelis were shocked to discover how many elderly people living alone haven’t been able to receive timely care. As a result, the authorities announced the introduction of emergency alert buttons and neck sensors.

In case of emergency, a patient can contact a call center where operators will see their medical and contact information and send help. If an elderly person falls, the sensor will automatically notify the contact center. The patient will not need to press a button.

4. Virus studies

The pandemic is likely to provide governments and organizations with an incentive to allocate more funds to virus studies. This could be a long-awaited acceleration of advanced sensor technology.

Thanks to graphene’s potential as an effective anti-viral agent, the laboratories that are using this material to develop sensors are now in the limelight. US graphene company Grolltex is testing its “graphene sensor chip on plastic” to discern COVID-19 patients from others who have similar symptoms.

Grolltex promises to quickly launch the manufacturing of highly reliable low-cost tests in industrial amounts once there is sufficient funding. Given that the boost in availability of tests could help countries worldwide reopen their economies faster, the funds might already be on the way.

5. Social distancing compliance

A recent study published in Science magazine suggests that social distancing measures are likely to be needed until 2022. Ensuring compliance will be one of the key requirements for businesses to operate in the post-pandemic economy.

Occupancy sensors are being incrementally introduced in stores. A German grocery retailer, Aldi Süd, recently installed a digital system that will enable the company to regulate the number of shoppers in its 1930 outlets.

mCloud Technologies Corp introduced its own sensor solution that measures the capacity of a building and automatically verifies compliance with local social distancing standards. Density, a Syracuse company that has been providing similar systems since 2014, claims that the demand for their technology at offices is growing as well.

Manufacturing facilities are also tapping into this trend. Ford is partnering with the United Auto Workers union to test wristbands that buzz to notify employees that they are not at a safe distance from each other.

6. Robotics

Not every business has been able to adapt to the new reality through digital transformation. Some work still cannot be done without human operators and interaction between people.

But robots will increasingly be able to do these kinds of jobs while social distancing measures remain in place. Machines equipped with advanced sensors can perform tasks that are more complex than carrying heavy stuff or drilling.

Here is one recent example: Robotic Assay for Drought, a research project by Iowa State University that explores the impact of drought, has continued despite the institution having to send most of its staff home. To maintain research, university scientists are using a robot specifically designed for watering and monitoring plants in the laboratory.

Using plant sensors, the robot measures each plant and creates its 3D image for the researchers to study.

7. Intelligent medical equipment

Sensors are installed in medical ventilators, the number-one tool in saving the lives of COVID-19 patients, and this technology can play an even bigger role in supporting healthcare.

GE Healthcare recently tested its AutoBed platform at the Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York. Drawing on sensors, the system is capable of connecting and monitoring up to 1200 hospital beds, handling 80 bed requests simultaneously, and ensuring a nurse is sent to patients who require specific care.

The real-time bed occupancy monitoring experiment has reduced wait times for half of the emergency patients by several hours as the staff were able to use the emergency room more efficiently.

Remote communication between the healthcare provider and a patient is a way to ease the load on the former and keep the latter at home, and this is an extremely important goal during the pandemic. Aeris, for example, uses sensors in medication-packing materials to ensure that a patient complies with their doctor’s guidelines on medication intake.

But there is more to drugs and sensors than ensuring drug adherence. Pharmaceutical company Otsuka produces sensor-embedded aripiprazole pills that are connected to a wearable device.

These Abilify MyCite tablets allow patients with psychotic disorders to track and communicate their mood and other data to their medical team via a mobile app.

8. Touchless environment

In the post-pandemic world, we will all be more cautious about the surfaces we touch. With automatic doors and lights, sensors already make our interaction with utilities in public places less physical, but there is more to come as a response to the growing demand.

A team from the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) at MIT joined forces with the University of Bristol and the University of Bath in the UK to create Sprayable User Interfaces.

The new sensing technology is a form of ink accompanied by a microcontroller. Although the main application of the interface is the operation of different systems via touch, it also allows you to open a door by simply waving your hand in front of it and potentially do other things without skin contact.

Conclusion

As you can see from this short review, new sensor applications prompted by the pandemic go beyond purely medical purposes.

Sensors can make a big difference in how we prevent and treat infectious diseases in the future. But the development of the technology that handles personal health data of millions of people is facing old challenges, such as regulatory compliance, ethical concerns and economic efficiency.

The hope is that the gravity of the current situation can provide a financial and moral boost to overcoming these challenges.

If you have an idea of a sensor-based product or platform, Intetics Inc. can help you make it real. We have solid experience in sensor systems and relevant engineering resources.