WRITER: Linda Fresques
Industrial Engineering Assistant Professor Alla Kammerdiner from the New Mexico State University College of Engineering is developing a wearable sensor technology that may alert older people when they are at risk of falling, enabling them to avoid serious injury.
Each year, more than 1.6 million older Americans suffer from fall-related injuries. Among older adults, falls are the number one cause of fractures, hospital admissions for trauma, loss of independence, and injury deaths reports the National Institutes of Health.
Kammerdiner has been conducting National science Foundation-funded research to develop new, advanced approaches that will aid in fall prevention and lead to smart, sensor based devices for the elderly. She recently received an extension to continue this research.
“Most current technologies and research focus on devices and methods for detection of falls. In the contrast, this project is geared towards creating devices and methods for supporting decisions whether a situation represents a risk of fall and how risky it is,” said Kammerdiner.
Simple accelerometer sensors, which detect acceleration and motion, will be attached to the legs and bodies of users with ankle straps, belts, etc. While Kammerdiner’s prototype utilizes wires to stream the information from the sensors, further wearable systems will be wireless to make them more comfortable and can be sewn onto the user’s clothes such as socks, T-shirts, etc., and will be accommodating to people of various sizes. These types of sensors are already used in many smart devices, such as smart phones and fitness wearables such as FitBit.
Kammerdiner’s research has utilized the College of Engineering Reduced Gravity Biomechanics laboratory. Led by mechanical engineering Professor Ou Ma, the lab is equipped with an innovative reduced- or zero-gravity simulator based on passive gravity compensation. The simulator can offload any amount of the body weight of a person moving within the mechanism. The technology has an auto-balancing system that automatically adjusts to accommodate the weight of different subjects. It also has a pair of supporting harnesses that allow a person in the system to be comfortable and firmly supported through all range of motion.
The reduced-gravity technology was originally devised to train astronauts to work in low-gravity space environments, but it has been found useful in studies to help people how have disabilities or walking impairments. Ma and his colleagues received a patent for this technology this past year.
Robert Wood, professor and academic head of NMSU’s department of human performance, dance and recreation has worked in the laboratory to analyze and compare movement patterns of older adults to more accurately assess factors that put people at risk for falls.
“I am grateful to Dr. Wood for bringing this important health issue to my attention,” said Kammerdiner.
Kammerdiner, along with recent industrial engineering master’s graduate Justin Winans and electrical and computer engineering master’s candidate Andre Guererro developed a prototype system of wearable sensors to collect data. Study participants between the ages of 18 and 35 wear the wired prototype of the system along with protective gear to safeguard them. During the study, their gait or vision is temporarily restricted to simulate or model old age.
Rather than predicting the environment, the smart device will be capable of situational assessment to inform the user about potential risks. Each of the sensors will provide the data about the movement of the part of body where that sensor is placed. This combined information from all sensors will be used by the device as the input. Kammerdiner proposed a new method for making sense of the data to inform the device users about the risk of their movement. The group is now analyzing the data to validate the new method.
“With advanced age, problems with vision and gait make falls more likely. Not surprisingly, many elderly live in fear of falling. Prevention of age-related falls can make a huge difference in the quality of life for this vulnerable population and their families,” said Kammerdiner. “These smart devices will allow older people to remain mobile and independent longer, helping maintain fitness in the elderly and reducing need for long-term care.”