WiFi routers could act as medical sensing devices

New research that could transform the future of healthcare will investigate whether it is possible to reuse WiFi radio waves as a medical radar system.

The research, led by the University of Bristol, is part of a new £1.5m grant awarded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), Toshiba and Decawave to the OPERA project, a consortium including the University of Bristol, University of Oxford University College London and Coventry University.

The University of Bristol reports the three year project, starting in October 2018, will extend the current SPHERE (Sensor Platform for HEalthcare in a Residential Environment) project, which is developing sensors for use in the home to spot health and wellbeing problems, with both projects running until 2021.

Physical activity and behaviour patterns play a significant role in a range of long-term chronic health conditions such as diabetes, dementia, depression, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), arthritis and asthma. The UK currently spends 70% of its entire health and social care budget on these types of conditions. Long-term physical activity and behaviour monitoring is best collected at home, where it is possible to install personalised sensor platforms and where people from higher risk groups tend to spend most of their time.

The project will attempt to build a complementary sensing platform by reusing technologies that already exist in most households. The OPERA system will be built around passive sensing technology; a receiver only radar network that detects the reflections of ambient radio frequency signals from people. “llumination signals” are transmitted from common household WiFi access points, but also from other wireless enabled devices, which are becoming part of the Internet of Things (IoT) home ecosystem. It will also use the latest ideas in micro-Doppler radar signal processing, bio-mechanical modelling and machine/deep learning for automatic recognition of physical activities and provide indoor localisation capabilities.

Dr Robert Piechocki, principle investigator and Reader in Wireless Connectivity in the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at the University of Bristol, said “A great deal of scientific and engineering ingenuity around the world goes into the creation of bespoke sensing systems. There is certainly a place for such systems. However, we are already and increasingly surrounded by radio waves originally intended only to deliver entertainment and information. But what if we could find another purpose for such radio systems? We hope to show that passive opportunistic sensing is a viable option.”

Professor Ian Craddock, Head of the Digital Health Engineering Research Group and Director of SPHERE-IRC based in the Faculty of Engineering, said “The OPERA team have set out an exciting vision of the future that connects back to the very origins of radar in the 1930s. The team will explore this potential in ways never envisaged by these pioneers, but which hold great promise to transform future healthcare.”

Dr Raul Santos-Rodriguez, Senior Lecturer in Data Science and Intelligent Systems at the University of Bristol, said “The minimally invasive OPERA system will allow us to perform activity recognition over long periods of time using the latest AI techniques. These activities will provide accurate information for an individual’s behaviour and lifestyle.”

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