Unobtrusive OPERA project to sense health in the home

A new project dubbed OPERA will investigate whether WiFi signals can be reused as a medical radar system to monitor for health anomalies in the home.


The research, led by Bristol University, is part of a new £1.5m grant awarded by the EPSRC, Toshiba and Decawave to the OPERA project, a consortium including the universities of Bristol and Oxford, University College London and Coventry University.

Starting in October 2018, the three-year project will extend the current SPHERE (Sensor Platform for HEalthcare in a Residential Environment) project, which is developing sensors to identify health and wellbeing anomalies in the home. Both projects run until 2021.

Pervasive sensors to tackle obesity and problems of ageing

A person’s physical activity and patterns of behaviour play a significant role in health conditions including diabetes, dementia, depression, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, arthritis and asthma. Britain currently spends 70 per cent of its health and social care budget on these types of conditions.

According to Bristol University, long-term physical activity and behaviour monitoring is best collected at home, where it is possible to install personalised sensor platforms and where people from high-risk groups often spend most of their time.

The newly funded project will attempt to build a complementary sensing platform by reusing technologies that exist in many households.

The OPERA (Opportunistic Passive Radar for Non-Cooperative Contextual Sensing) system will be built around passive sensing technology: a receiver-only radar network that detects the reflections of ambient radio-frequency signals from people.

These so-called illumination signals are transmitted from household WiFi access points and wireless-enabled devices. OPERA will also use the latest advances in micro-Doppler radar signal processing, biomechanical modelling and machine/deep learning for automatic recognition of physical activities and provide indoor localisation capabilities.

Dr Robert Piechocki, principal investigator and Reader in Wireless Connectivity in the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at Bristol University, said: “A great deal of scientific and engineering ingenuity around the world goes into the creation of bespoke sensing systems. There is certainly a place for such systems. However, we are already and increasingly surrounded by radio waves originally intended only to deliver entertainment and information. But what if we could find another purpose for such radio systems? We hope to show that passive opportunistic sensing is a viable option.”

Prof Ian Craddock, head of the Digital Health Engineering Research Group and director of SPHERE-IRC based in the Faculty of Engineering, added: “The OPERA team have set out an exciting vision of the future that connects back to the very origins of radar in the 1930s.  The team will explore this potential in ways never envisaged by these pioneers, but which hold great promise to transform future healthcare.”