Oct. 8 - Scientists at the University of Manchester have developed a prototype carpet containing plastic optical fibres which can detect the pressure exerted by someone when they fall or change their gait while walking. The carpet is connected to a computer system and is designed for use in assisted living facilities where fall-related injuries are common. Jim Drury has the story.
It may look like an ordinary carpet, but it's designed to protect the elderly living in nursing homes, with technology that's far more sophisticated than first meets the eye. The technology's still very much under wraps, pending the award of a patent, but hidden beneath the carpet is an underlaid network of optical fibres laid in a grid formation. The fibres can detect changes in pressure from above, so when someone falls a signal is sent instantly to a computer system to alert staff members. It was designed by an interdisciplinary team at the University of Manchester, led by Professor Krikor Ozanyan and Dr Patricia Scully. They call it their "magic" carpet. SOUNDBITE (English) DR PATRICIA SCULLY, FROM THE UNIVERSITY OF MANCHESTER'S PHOTON SCIENCE INSTITUTE, SAYING: "This is a piece of polymer optical fibre - or plastic optical fibre, as we call it. It's made out of the same polymer fibre as perspex and the fibre's made up of a two-dimensional mesh or grid of these fibres, so light is transmitted down one end of the fibre and it's detected at the other end of the fibre." The fibres are similar to those used to transmit data to homes, in which light bounces along the fibres' length. They bend when someone treads on the carpet, sending electronic signals to a computer where an individual's movement can be plotted in real time. The team used a tomographic technique that Krikor Ozanyan says is similar to that used in ultrasound pregnancy scanners. SOUNDBITE (English) PROFESSOR KRIKOR OZANYAN, FROM THE UNIVERSITY OF MANCHESTER'S SCHOOL OF ELECTRICAL AND ELECTRONIC ENGINEERING, SAYING: "This signal that those sensors are sending are useful in order to reconstruct an image of the footprint. This is based on a novel type of tomography that we introduced in 2005 and in this particular implementation we can make a magic carpet, but it's good for many other things, for imaging temperature for example." To make them sensitive to deflection caused by pressure, the team carved grooves along the fibres' length. Having not yet patented the carpet, they're keeping the design of the fibre mesh secret. According to the team's research, falls account for half of all hospital admissions for people over the age of 65. Director of Research, Professor Chris Todd, says the sensor mat can reduce this figure in two specific ways. SOUNDBITE (English) CHRIS TODD, PROFESSOR OF PRIMARY CARE & COMMUNITY HEALTH AND DIRECTOR OF RESEARCH, UNIVERSITY OF MANCHESTER, SAYING: "One is detect when a fall has occurred so the way it's set up, you can see that somebody's fallen down and can act as an alarm for an older person, and the other thing it can do is give us forewarning if a person's gait changes, their walking pattern changes, which may be an indicator of future falls, but we can train people to exercise interventions with older people to reduce those risks." The researchers say fibres could be retro-fitted beneath existing carpet, making it a relatively inexpensive technology. They hope their "magic" carpet will soon be made available commercially, to help protect the elderly and infirm throughout Britain.