Smart PPE face masks to monitor correct fit and health

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Smart PPE face masks are being developed in the US that incorporate battery-free sensors to assess proper fit and monitor health.

smart PPE face masks
Image: Northwestern University

The team at Northwestern University has received a $200,000 rapid research (RAPID) grant from the US National Science Foundation (NSF), which is funding proposals that address the COVID-19 pandemic.

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By using sensors such as accelerometers and motion and strain sensors, the device will be able to tell if the mask is too loose or improperly suctioned onto the face. It will be able to sense also if the mask wearer is fatigued or having difficulty breathing.

“We want to make these sensors small enough and cheap enough to be used on every single piece of PPE in the country, numbering tens of billions,” said project leader Josiah Hester, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering in Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering. “Because time is of the essence, we are doing our best to use what we already have. We are leveraging techniques that are built on solid literature in sensing. We do not want to re-invent the wheel.”

This project also builds on Hester’s previous work to develop battery-free devices that can harvest ambient energy without losing their memory during intermittent power outages. With the RAPID funding, his team will build new energy harvesting, battery-free hardware and software to keep on-mask sensors powered and maintenance free.

“Our work is motivated by the fact that no clinician, caregiver or person going to the grocery store is going to plug their mask into a wall,” Hester said in a statement.

According to Northwestern the team plans to release an early version of the smart PPE face masks for pilot testing by the end of this summer. Then, it will release all designs, schematics, software and performance data, so other researchers can use or extend the work.

“Communities or hospitals can quite literally take our design files, email them to one of the many fabrication companies around the nation and have working devices by the end of the week,” Hester said.

Details of the NSF-funded mart PPE face masks project can be found here.