How it works: Tracking the vital signs of man’s best friend 

Right from the start, wearable health-tracking devices have been vital for us. The question is: can we pass this trend on to our ‘furry’ friends just as successfully?

Designed to measure vital signs even in sleep, wearable tech has become quintessential for millions of consumers, including those who have particularly high risk of stroke and coronary heart disease. Taking this idea one step further, researchers at Imperial College London have developed a first-of-its-kind health-tracking sensor, capable of detecting life-signs through fur and up to four layers of clothing.

The new type of sensor could help owners keep track of their pets’ health in real-time, without the need for direct skin contact or shaving, making everyday wearables for pets and farm animals perfectly possible – and indeed probable. The technology is just as pertinent for human use as the device can be worn over many layers of clothing, without in any way compromising the performance of the overall system.

“Wearables are expected to play a major role in monitoring health and detecting diseases early,” says, Dr Firat Guder of Imperial’s Department of Bioengineering. “Our stretchy, flexible invention heralds a whole new type of sensor that can track the health of animals and humans alike over fur or clothing.”

Made solely out of soft and stretchable silicone-water composite material, the fur-friendly device moulds itself to the curvature of the body or a piece of clothing, effectively removing all/any air pockets between the body and the device. The combination of water and hydrogels with silicone offers a comfortable fit as an added bonus.

Reminiscent of a stethoscope used in medical diagnosis, a battery‐operated microphone inside the wearable device, picks up sound waves, or acoustic signals, originating from within the body. The digital data, mainly heart sounds and breathing patterns, is then transmitted to a nearby computer wirelessly.

“The sensor works like a watery, squishy stethoscope, filling any gaps between it and its subject so no air bubbles are present to dampen the sound,” explains Yasin Cotur. The analysed data serves as a treasure trove of health information. Using a simple alert mechanism, healthcare professionals, veterinarians or pet owners can be notified of anomalies in human/animal health instantly – a convenience-packed safety measure, which was just not possible before.

When tested against the curved surface of a loudspeaker (Harman Kardon Onyx Studio 4) to ascertain the effect of stretching on acoustics, the Imperial-developed sensor worked just as fine with a slight increase in variability/error.

The error was marked negligible and researchers have concluded that stretching had little or no effect on the acoustic system of the device. It was also found that the sensor works best when the clothing or fur is right up against the skin after testing with healthy human volunteers and animal subjects.

Sniffer dogs have long been of crucial importance to federal agencies that play a significant role in fighting organised crimes and trafficking. Coached to exhibit behaviours such as barking or sitting when in close proximity to a target object, trained dogs can uncover anything from package bombs to survivors trapped in debris after an earthquake or building collapse – by interpreting smells. An average human has roughly 5 million olfactory receptors, contrary to a canine that has between 125 and 300 million.

While sniffing for an object or person of interest, detective dogs experience heightened heart and breathing rates as they are about to be rewarded for their findings. That said, particularly challenging is the task of quantitatively measuring every tip off.

Now, with the new acoustic wireless sensor at the ready, Imperial researchers are of the opinion that the technology could be used to establish certain benchmarks for resting heart and breathing rates. By measuring vital signs before and after a find, the level of excitement can be quantised. This way, baseline conditions can be used to identify potential bomb spots and missing persons by determining exactly how sure the dog is of its discovery. For ease of gathering the necessary information, an algorithm can be devised around the same.

To put it all together, the useful benefits of wireless acoustic sensors are as remarkable as they are varied. Incorporation of motion sensors that will help track movements of pets and other animal subjects in real-time is currently in the works. “The next step is to validate our system further with animals, primarily focusing on sniffer dogs and then horses and livestock later on,” adds Yasin.

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