Sept., 2007 Vol. 32 No. 3
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UH Department of Electrical Engineering

Office of Technology Transfer and Economic Development

Published September 2007

Heart Sensing Radar

LifeReader uses radar and wireless technology to remotely detect vital signs

by Cheryl Ernst
two men working in a soundproof lab

In the lab, doctoral candidate Byung-Kwon Park compares radar results to traditional measures in monitoring the heart and respiration rates of team member Shuhei Yamada, who earned his MS in electrical engineering in May

Rescue workers climb gingerly over mounds of rubble following a major earthquake, searching for people who were inside the building when it collapsed. The rescuers call, then pause and listen carefully for a response from survivors. But what if victims lie beneath the debris alive but unconscious?

Anxious parents linger at their newborn’s crib. They know the heartache and real, though unfounded feelings of guilt associated with losing a child to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. What if this cherished infant stops breathing during the night?

Security personnel scrutinize identification documents and carefully study X-ray images of carry-on luggage. They visually scan the long line of travelers for nervous or suspicious behavior. What if there was a way to detect unusually ansious or hostile feelings disguised by a seemingly calm exterior?

The potential applications of a new technology called Heart Sensing Radar/LifeReader™ are real and varied. The technology was developed by three University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa electrical engineering professors who have married microwave Doppler radar to digital signal processing to create an unobtrusive means of detecting life signs.

Working with the university’s Office of Technology Transfer and Economic Development, their spin-off company, Senscorp Technologies, is developing the commercial product.

Olga Boric-Lubecke and Victor Lubecke are the hardware experts. She brings experience with biomedical applications of wireless systems. Husband Victor focuses on micro-electro-mechanical systems for wireless and optical communications and monitoring technologies for biomedical and industrial applications. Both are senior members of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and have conducted research at Japan’s Institute of Physical and Chemical Research (RIKEN), NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Bell Laboratories.

Anders Host-Madsen heads the software team, drawing on his work in signal processing, wireless communications and wireless sensor networks. He is an IEEE editor and has held faculty appointments in Korea, Canada and the United States and worked at TRLabs.

The trio began working together about three years ago, securing National Science Foundation funding and assembling a team that includes a post-doctoral researcher, several graduate students and even puts a handful of undergraduates to work.

"We’ve worked in private industry, so we know there’s a huge difference between having something work in principle and having it work in practice," says Host-Madsen. When they formed Senscorp to tackle the practical development, they brought in Heeyeon Kim (MBA ’02 Mānoa), who was recently promoted to tax senior at Nishihama & Kishida, CPAs, as financial officer.

The principle behind LifeReader™ is similar to the operation of a police officer’s speed gun. A radar signal is sent toward a moving car. The frequency shift in the signal as it bounces back reveals the speed of the car.

Sounds simple enough. But the distance covered by a beating heart and the motion of a breathing chest is miniscule by comparison. Add to that the complexity of a biological system.

"I had to read a lot of articles on how the heart works," Host-Madsen recalls. "I had assumed it was a periodic signal, but biological systems in the body don’t follow a nice regular pattern."

To be effective, a system must distinguish between normal variations in heartbeat and rhythms that indicate physical stress or emotional intensity.

The UH-developed technology has three major advantages over existing monitoring systems—it is wireless, it can "see" through walls, and it can distinguish the signals of multiple people.

As a medical device, a wireless device is unobtrusive. Free of connected electrodes taped to the body, patients could be continuously monitored to diagnose problematic heart rhythms or signal a heart attack. Babies could be monitored for SIDS. Elderly individuals could live alone with assurance that someone will observe a problem with their vital signs.

By the same token, athletes’ performance could be more easily monitored during training and telltale signs of distress that indicate when someone is lying or has hostile intent could be remotely detected.

After viewing their technology, one lawyer joked that he would like to have the system installed in his watch to see if an opponent is lying, Host-Madsen says.

With a signal that penetrates even metal and distinguishes between different heart beats, military or SWAT teams can determine presence, number and location of combatants on the other side of a wall. Other detection methods are limited in that they only recognize gross motion, Host-Madsen observes.

"You can crouch, motionless. You can even hold your breath. But you can’t stop your heart from beating." For rescuers, quickly identifying life signs could speed treatment of the wounded on a battlefield or location of the living in a disaster.

The team is still working on miniaturization, and researchers estimate they will complete a commercial prototype in the near future. The technology generated considerable interest at the World’s Best Technologies Showcase in Texas in May 2007 and won the Emerging Technology Award at TechConnect Summit 2007 in Santa Clara the same month.

At the latter event, the Office of Technology Transfer and Economic Development also presented two other UH inventions—a novel solar-powered system for producing hydrogen and oxygen gases from water (for hydrogen fuel cell, medical and industrial applications) and unique nanocomposite materials with improved strength and stress- and fracture-resistance (for use in aircraft, vehicles, consumer goods and many resin-based products).

The amount of follow up generated by the shows, both from potential investors and companies interested in collaborating on applications, is a good endorsement of the technology, says OTTED Director Richard Cox. The office’s role is to present technologies developed in Hawaiʻi, find partners to license and commercialize UH inventions, foster spin-off opportunities and bring recognition to UH research and inventions.

Cox joined the university convinced of its potential as an economic engine for the state and the caliber of its faculty. His experience with heart sensing radar has added this lesson:

"The quality of engineering students at UH’we’ve been very impressed."

The OTTED advantage

Universities, often backed by federal funding agencies, focus on creating new knowledge, including the basis for new technologies. Companies tailor these technologies into products that meet market demands.

As a bridge between academia and industry, UH’s Office of Technology Transfer and Economic Development promotes local research-and-development businesses and creates royalty income for the university.

During the past four years—

Cheryl Ernst is the Mālamalama editor and creative services director in External Affairs and University Relations

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