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White House initiative expands research into eldertech research

ECE Professor Marjorie Skubic stands inside TigerPlace, a Columbia-based Americare independent living facility, where she and collaborators are testing their eldertech monitoring devices. Skubic has received numerous grants for the project, including one recently-awarded from the White House’s US Ignite initiative.

Speaking at a Washington, D.C. event to unveil the White House’s US Ignite initiative, National Science Foundation Director Subra Suresh spoke with pride of the of the agency’s legacy of providing funds for fundamental research and its many positive outcomes. Among lauded projects was MU computer and electrical engineering Professor Marge Skubic’s eldertech work.

Since 2005, Skubic’s research program has explored the use of a variety of sensors and other devices that provide unobtrusive monitoring for in-home and healthcare facility use. The technologies that have been developed are intended to detect changes in occupant behavior that might indicate health problems. There is an ever-increasing need for these technologies as the country’s population advances in age, but prefers to continue living independently.

Many of Skubic’s innovations have been devised in collaboration with Marilyn Rantz, a curator’s professor in MU’s Sinclair School of Nursing. The pair identified human behaviors that can be used to predict changes in residents’ well being, and then Skubic and an interdisciplinary team — which includes a cadre of MU faculty members and student research assistants — developed sensors and systems that will collect residents’ activity data and build a profile of their normal day-to-day movements and responses. Changes in behavior queue professionals monitoring the data when an intervention may be warranted.

Skubic, Rantz and associates have used Columbia-based Americare independent living facility, TigerPlace, to implement, test and perfect their eldertech research projects. Since she started devoting efforts to “aging in place” research, Skubic has received $3.5 million from NSF for various projects in addition to the just-announced $299,600 awarded from the US Ignite initiative — from Early-concept Grants for Exploratory Research (EAGER)  — to test the team’s embedded assessment sensors in conjunction with remote video conferencing for nursing care coordination. In addition to testing the project at TigerPlace, the project will be implemented in a family assisted living center in Cedar Falls, Iowa. Fiber optic networking will allow remote monitoring by nursing professionals from Columbia.

Rantz and other colleagues have netted $4.1 million from a variety of funding resources including the National Institutes of Health and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Rantz has said the technologies that are being developed can detect illnesses 10 days to two weeks before a resident notices anything is wrong.

“I watched my mother-in-law and father-in-law with their health problems and wished that we had had this technology in place to help them,” Skubic said.

The eldertech group has introduced a number of novel sensors and other devices that can monitor potentially at-risk elderly or disabled residents while still preserving their privacy.

Microsoft Kinect technology is being used to capture gait information in TigerPlace apartments. Using the depth images, systems can monitor resident movements within living spaces and check for fall risks. Hydraulic bed sensors used in the project are capable of measuring pulse, respiration and restlessness, all key elements in determining changes in health.

Other technologies that have been investigated by the team include a Doppler radar technology used to build a “signature” of the way a person walks. Changes in this signature might warn of impending risks.

A “smart” carpet that monitors changes in gait and that also can record falls was originated as part of the group’s research. Early detection of a fall may result in a far better recovery outcome than in the case of an accident not immediately discovered.

An acoustic array system uses the acoustic signature and sound localization for a similar purpose — to differentiate between normal noises like doors shutting and the sound of a person falling to the floor.

“My own mother recently spent a week in the hospital,” Skubic said. “If she had sensors in her home, I think we would have observed a change earlier and may have been able to keep her out of the hospital. This is what keeps me working on these projects. It has the potential to help so many seniors.”

It has been estimated that by 2030, one in every five Americans will be over 65, which makes eldertech research a “hot” topic. A company interested in licensing the technologies developed by the research group recently has approached Skubic and Rantz.

In all likelihood, these innovations may play a role in our futures, courtesy of the NSF and the creative minds of MU researchers.

Other MU faculty members on the research team include electrical and computer engineering colleagues, Curator’s Professor Jim Keller, Professor Dominic Ho, Professor Harry Tyrer, Associate Professor Henry He and Assistant Professor Tony Han. Mihail Popescu, an adjunct assistant professor in computer science, also has contributed to the research. And, the project has launched the careers of numerous undergraduate and graduate students.