Smart carpet senses falls

Wednesday, February 20, 2008 | 9:32 p.m. CST; updated 3:01 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

COLUMBIA — It is not uncommon to feel light-headed after standing up too quickly to grab a ringing phone across the room; the normal reaction is to regain composure and go answer the phone.

For some seniors, a situation like this could result in a fall, which can lead to broken bones or other injuries. Falls are the leading cause of injury death for older citizens, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

An MU professor is working on a monitoring system that could alert health professionals sooner when a fall occurs. The system, called “smart carpet,” is designed to help electronically monitor the location of seniors and alert a computer or other system in the event of a fall.

Harry Tyrer, professor of electrical and computer engineering at MU, received a $200,000 grant from the Alzheimer’s Association for the development of the carpet. The project uses electronic devices, which are a little smaller than the head of a pencil eraser, and spread across a sheet of fabric. The project uses a sensor printed on flexible, thin sheets with an organic ink.

Tyrer got the idea for the carpet after seeing electronic sensors developed by Annalisa Bonfiglio, an electrical engineer from Italy.

Tyrer hopes to expand the censors to hardwood floors. Touch-sensitive floor monitors already exist, but Tyrer said they use vibrating signals that don’t exclusively define falls.

The study to assist senior living is part of a partnership between the School of Nursing and the School of Engineering known as Eldertech. It is under The Center for Eldercare and Rehabilitation Technology, a group of faculty, staff and students from many disciplines devoted to furthering technology for older adults.

Eventually, researchers hope to market the carpet to elderly people who live alone. But first the device will be tested at Tiger Place and The Bluffs senior residences.

“We are interested in understanding the needs of the people,” said Marjorie Skubic, an associate professor of electric and computer engineering who is president of Eldertech.

Myra Aud, associate professor in the nursing school, is working with Tyrer to develop the technology.

Aud said the importance of this new technology is that it can reduce damage to people who are not helped in a timely fashion after falling.

There have been stories of seniors who have fallen and not been helped for hours or even days, she said. Both Tyrer and Aud say the significance of the “smart carpet” is that it provides care for seniors without being invasive.

“They don’t want to be watched any more than you want to be watched,” Tyrer said.

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