Skin-mounted electronics could wirelessly monitor soldiers

A new EPSRC project is to investigate the use of skin-mounted, wirelessly enabled electronics for a range of defence and medical applications.

The multi-disciplinary team gathers researchers from Kent and Manchester universities with support from the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) and Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH).

Although some research groups have recently revealed so-called ‘tattoo electronics’, none have actually achieved wireless communication of data yet, project lead Dr John Batchelor of Kent University told The Engineer.

‘Human tissue is difficult electronically — it’s got very high permittivity so it’s very capacitive, but it’s also very lossy, because we’re essentially bags of sea water and that’s not good for transmission.’

The defence applications will aim to mount skin electronics on soldiers in theatre to keep track of their biometrics, stress levels and position in real time.

Meanwhile, the work with GOSH will first look at obtaining wireless brain-wave readings in children.

‘If you do these measurements, you usually want people to be in as normal a condition as possible, because if they’re under stress, uncomfortable or distracted, you’re getting misleading readings,’ Batchelor said.

A common requirement for both strands of the project will be to fabricate skin-mounted radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags that are sufficiently robust.

‘They have to be biocompatible but they also have to deal with the stretches, bending and the strains of the skin — which is a very elastic surface. You might want these things to be on for many hours and ideally, in the future, more than a day,’ Batchelor said.

Aided by Manchester University’s chemistry department, the team hopes to be able to print out the skin electronics on demand.