Smart pill bottle keeps a lid on tampering

Prescription drug abuse could be curtailed with a smart pill bottle that sends wireless alerts when it detects tampering or overdose.

smart pill bottle
A flexible computer inside a medication bottle can send wireless SMS messages when someone attempts to tamper with it. © 2019 Muhammad M. Hussain

This is one potential application for new sensor technology being developed at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia, another being the detection of unsafe storage conditions of pharmaceuticals.

Digital technology can help combat threats to human health, such as networks of tiny wearable sensors deployed in hospitals that can track influenza outbreaks in real time. But the high costs associated with electronic manufacturing means that these sensors aren’t available in low-income populations that suffer disproportionately from epidemics.

Muhammed Hussain, doctoral student Sherjeel Khan and colleagues are working to make sensors more accessible using cheaper materials. To this end, they recently demonstrated that it is feasible to create temperature and humidity sensors from paper by drawing circuits with conductive ink.

The team has now developed a stretchy sensor, an anisotropic conductive tape with a range of touch-sensitive applications. Assembled by sandwiching silver particles between two layers of adhesive copper tape, the new material is non-conductive in its normal state, but when pressed, the double-layered tape makes an electrical connection that sends a signal to an external reader.

“Similar devices have been used in flat panel displays, but we’ve made them simple to build and easy to use by almost anyone,” said Khan.

The researchers used their technology to create a smart pill bottle. After 3D-printing a lid that uses light-emitting diodes to count the number of pills dispensed, they taped paper-based humidity and temperature sensors to its underside. The bottle was then sealed with an outer layer of conductive tape that acts as a touch sensor.

According to KAUST, if someone attempts to break into the smart pill bottle, or the insides become too moist, a flexible control module inside the bottle analyses the signals and delivers warnings to mobile phones via a Bluetooth connection. The conductive tape could be used on its own or as part of a modular sensor system, and Hussain believes it could help groups looking for quick tests of innovative health sensors.

This sensor development that is easy to build is claimed to open up broader possibilities for researchers. “If you give researchers a ‘do it yourself opportunity,’ there is a good chance they will use it to expand the horizon of electronics and empower humanity with better technology,” said Hussain.

The research is published in Flexible and Printed Electronics.