The latest wearable technology to help rescue teams

A trend in technology is the one that does its job without you even noticing. This is the basis of wearables, whose ever expanding list of application ranges from capturing body parameters to sleep quality. But wearables are now much more than just leisure gadgets: their ability to report positioning and sense the environment can bring about a revolution to many professional fields. This is especially true for disaster response.

Although the forefather of wearable technology is a miniature Chinese abacus ring from the XVII th century used for mathematical calculations, the first popular reference are wristwatches. Since the early XX century they dominated the market and evolved into different uses until they were progressively replaced by cellphones and other more recent wearables. Consumer market is flooded with devices equipped with different sensors for activity tracking, heart rate or oxygen level monitoring. There are literally thousands of very low-cost fitness, health or wellness-oriented wearable devices. But also, among the mainstream markets there are various medical and assisted living devices for continuous health monitoring. Wearable technology thus helps the growing number of patients overloading hospitals and medical centers, while increasing their life quality.

Today the most distinctive feature of wearable technologies is the ability of exchanging data without human intervention thanks to electronic sensors and new firmware/software. This passive gathering of data is particularly crucial in the event of an emergency where the capacity of professionals for acting is very limited by time. In this scenario, capturing information about the status of the environment (e.g. temperature, air quality etc.) and of the rescue teams (location, activity, vital signs etc.) can be critical.

Wearables are commonly used in disaster response with examples like the wristband of Morphix technologies for the detection of hazardous chemicals, among others. However, the technology is not exploited in its full potential. As part of I-REACT, the Serbian company Bitgear is in charge of the development of a wearable for first responders that will be the first device applied to disasters with both positioning and sensing capabilities.

3D representation of the I-REACT wearable

The advanced navigation technology provides a much more accurate position than regular GPS, that can have high deviations of accuracy and large positioning errors in urban environments. For this, Bitgear is using a multi-constellation receiver which combines raw satellite navigation data not only from American GPS but from the European Galileo/EGNOS and Russian GLONASS. The integration of different sources with the processing of raw data through algorithms and coupling with the inertial sensors (INS) provides a much reliable positioning than any portable device used in disasters nowadays. Bitgear is also working towards expanding the initial device concept to state-of-the art real time location system (RTLS) that will combine Ultra-wide band radio (UWB) to provide indoor positioning of the rescue teams at critical situations.

The functionality of environmental sensing will be used for the detection of risky scenarios for first responders. For instance, if the oxygen level drops only four percentage points from the standard level (21%), this can impair coordination and judgement of the rescue teams. Thus, anticipating this environmental changes is essential. Also, by assessing the drops in oxygen levels we can obtain another relevant information as they might indirectly indicate the increase of toxic gasses. Thus, with the I-REACT wearable, rescue teams will know when they need to wear masks when necessary to prevent poisoning.

The I-REACT wearables will be connected via low-energy bluetooth to the mobile app developed in the context of the project. This way, the sensing and positioning will be sent to the big data structure and readily provided to decision makers at control centres.

For the implementation of this technology there are a number of challenges. On the technical side, the design of electronic devices for harsh environments, such as those found in emergencies, is always complex and requires good materials and insulation. Another challenge is posed by the proximity to the human body since it absorbs electromagnetic energy, which degrades the signal of the device. So the materials, the position of the antenna, the topology of the electronics have to be tweaked. Finally, one of the most important issues is to build the smallest possible device to avoid overloading of responders that are already forced to carry many gadgets. To this end the miniaturisation process will be very centred in the efficient placement of oxygen sensors, as these are usually very bulky, and minimization of obstruction of radio signals.

To date, different functional wearable prototypes have been produced and they are in the process of performance evaluation and environmental testing. Also, different options for boxing are under development. All in all, the device should be ready by the end of this year.

The application of wearables to the I-REACT project holds the promise of a safer and more effective coordination of rescue teams, and demonstrates that overall technologies are an essential ally to fight disasters.

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