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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

Using wearable devices as ‘guardian angels’ for elderly

A technological revolution is shaping up that could make a big difference to the quality of life of the elderly, and address a multitude of other challenges as well.

Today, the elderly make up 4 per cent of the UAE’s population. Twenty years from now this figure could be three times as high, according to estimates by the Ministry of Social Affairs.

Anticipating an ageing population, the Government has set about preparing for it, with increases planned in the number of rehabilitation facilities, daycare centres and home services.

This situation is mirrored in most countries around the world, where private and public initiatives are being set up to prepare for this unprecedented demographic shift.

But additional assistance could come from a less likely source. A technological revolution is shaping up that could make a big difference to the quality of life of the elderly, and address a multitude of other challenges.

It comes in the form of wearable computing. The first generation of smart watches is already available in stores, and Google’s interactive glasses are expected to hit the market in the coming months. But these are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

While these devices are basically ever more sophisticated miniature computers, technology being developed at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne and with partner institutions around the world is based on a different paradigm.

In a project we call “Guardian Angels”, we have drawn up a blueprint for zero-energy, wearable, smart-sensing devices, drawing on advances in computing, distributed intelligence and nanotechnology. Designed to integrate into clothes or to be worn directly on the skin, these devices will be able to monitor health-related parameters autonomously and non-invasively, and make them available to family members or doctors via the internet, while guaranteeing patient privacy.

For the elderly, this technology could act as a metaphorical guardian angel, giving them back some of their autonomy by detecting abnormalities, and signalling them to their caregivers.

It would help to enact preventive measures, such as emergency assistance or a dose of medication, before it is too late.

But we face a big challenge in making these devices a reality: power. Anyone with a smartphone will be all too aware of this constraint, familiar as we all are with the limited battery life of today’s devices.

Smartphone batteries last a day or so; the kind of wearable devices we envision would need to be far less energy-hungry.

First, we have to rein in the devices’ power consumption, well beyond the limits of today’s electrical circuits.

Then we have to develop new techniques to harvest enough power to drive the circuits.

Light, motion, or even thermal gradients, are candidate power sources.

Each device has to be able to adapt to whichever source is most abundant at any given time.

The battery, ubiquitous today, would consequently become unnecessary.

We have a long way to go, but we have already cleared some of these obstacles, having developed new, ultra-low power transistors, sensors and Wi-Fi communications systems, as well as nanostructured solar cells.

Ultimately, these developments will advance technology to help not only the elderly, but everyone as well.

Infants’ health could be constantly monitored and their unspoken needs addressed more easily. Drivers’ fatigue or alertness levels could be assessed in real-time, as could the stress levels of surgeons, air control agents, and other professionals who need to perform near their physical and mental limits.

Moreover, a prevention-based strategy would dramatically cut the costs of the healthcare system while improving patients’ quality of life.

But the applications go beyond health and well-being. Because of their autonomy and small environmental footprint, the same types of sensors could be applied to monitor the world around us and extend our biological senses – monitoring, for example, pollution or ultraviolet radiation levels.

Today, our technological gadgets help us keep up with the news and stay in touch with our friends. Tomorrow, we hope that we will be able to stay in tune with our health and that of those closest to us, thanks to this technology.

Adrian Ionescu is a professor of nanotechnology at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne