Hands-free safety at home

New technology developed by UNSW’s School of Computer Science and Engineering will help elderly people live safely at home for longer

The ‘smart home’ will monitor a person’s activities using Wi-Fi in combination with a wireless device placed in the home.We are seeing more elderly people living alone. Their relatives and friends would like to know how their loved ones are doing: Have they been active? Are they OK? Technology has advanced so far as to ask the elderlies to wear a tag or wireless device so that their activities can be monitored. In reality, people often forget to wear them.

Enter a team of researchers from UNSW Computer Science and Engineering (CSE) who are working on a new method to monitor activities without people having to wear a tag or device, or have an intrusive camera or passive infrared signal installed in their home.

“We are working to create a ‘smart home’ so we can monitor a person’s activities using Wi-Fi in combination with a wireless device placed in the home,” says Dr Wen Hu.

“The key scientific principle behind the idea is that different activities affect the wireless signal in different ways. Therefore, by monitoring the changes in the signal, it’s possible to figure out what activities are being carried out by an occupant in a living environment.”

Hu is a Senior Lecturer at CSE and has been working in this field since his PhD, 10 years ago. His research sparked a big interest in the possibility of using Wi-Fi to detect the movements of people by turning one of its big disadvantages into a strength.

“Ever since Wi-Fi was invented to transmit data, around 20 years ago, one of the problems with it has been that human movement has a negative impact on the transmission. The signal basically bounces off the human body while people are moving around,” says Hu.

“As human beings, we always want to do more with less, so in the past few years, we’ve been developing a new technology using Wi-Fi that can use this imperfection to find out whether a person is there, what the person is doing, and who the person is.”

Hu and his research team have found that different people and activities leave different ‘signatures’ on the Wi-Fi signal. In one experiment, they were able to successfully monitor the activities of a postgraduate student, using Wi-Fi, in almost every corner of their one-bedroom apartment. They are now really keen to find an industry partner to up-scale their activities.

“We are actively looking to partner with industry to help us evaluate this concept and technology in a more realistic and large-scale setting, with the aim of commercialising the technology in the future. This might be a router company, one of the telcos and/or a company in the health sector that’s interested in extending its service offering to include this type of ‘in-home’ monitoring system.”

This technology is really interesting because it offers potential solutions for a couple of big issues in society.

Dr Wen Hu, Senior Lecturer at the School of Computer Science and Engineering.

Although there are numerous other applications for this emerging technology, Hu believes the biggest market is the elderly and those living in ‘assisted living’ type environments.

“This technology is really interesting because it offers potential solutions for a couple of big issues in society,” says Hu. “For example, it’s well known that many older people prefer to live at home for as long as possible – this technology will allow them to do this safely. Another issue that we are hoping to address is the large cost to the health system of the ageing population. The longer we can keep people at home, the less the financial burden on the health service, which is set to come under increasing pressure in the near future.”

Ultimately, this project is about improving the quality of life of people living alone and Hu is very much looking forward to joining with industry to commercialise the technology.

If you’re interested in talking to Dr Hu about this project, please contact him via email.

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