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WPI receives $1.2 million NIST award for pioneering study of wireless body area networks

Thu, 03/18/2010 - 9:26am
EurekAlert

WORCESTER, Mass. ? The Center for Wireless Information Network Studies (CWINS) at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has received a three-year, $1.2 million award from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to conduct a groundbreaking study of the propagation of radio waves around and through the human body. Led by Kaveh Pahlavan, professor of electrical and computer engineering and director of CWINS, the research will help speed the development of and create standards for body area networks (BANs), a new generation of wireless networks that support a variety of medical applications, from monitoring the functioning of implanted devices to helping perform virtual endoscopic exams.

The award is one of only 27 funded (from 1,300 proposals), through NIST's AARA (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) Measurement, Science & Engineering Grants program.

BANs are made up of compact medical sensors that can be worn by individuals or implanted in their bodies, depending upon the application. Data from the sensors are transmitted to base stations and then on to hospitals or clinics, where they may be monitored and analyzed. Data from these sensors can also be used to pinpoint the location of medical devices, for example implants or tiny sensors ingested to study the digestive system. Though most initial applications of BANs are expected to be in health care, the networks will likely find uses in many other areas. For example, they may be used to monitor athletes or military personnel.

BANs may make it possible for doctors and other health care professionals to remotely monitor patients around the clock. Data from a BAN installed in or on a person with a history of cardiac health issues, for instance, might alert doctors to heart rhythm irregularities, enabling emergency personnel to respond before a potentially fatal heart actually occurs. Similarly, BANs may make it possible for doctors to remotely monitor patients with diabetes, whose insulin levels could change abruptly, or people with seizure-causing disorders. And since BANs can be interactive, health care professionals could use them to deliver treatment from afar--for example, to patients with pacemakers or installed insulin pumps.

While BAN technology is still new, the industry is expected to grow rapidly in the coming years. Indeed, the FCC has recently allocated specific spectrum bands for wireless medical communications, and committees have been formed to address standardization of these emerging technologies. In fact, standardization is one of the areas that the WPI research aims to address, Pahlavan says.

"Because innovations in wireless networks are based on radio propagation measurement science and engineering, standards committees devote considerable effort to measuring propagation characteristics," he notes. "It is essential to have consistent standards in order to evaluate the respective performances of alternative wireless solutions."

The goal of Pahlavan's team, which enjoys an international reputation for its research on radio frequency propagation and localization in wireless data networks, is to apply what it has learned by studying larger-scale networks (from wireless local networks such as Wi-Fi to personal networks like Bluetooth) to developing a comprehensive program for measuring the characteristics of radio frequency propagation in and around the body. Measurement and modeling of radio propagation and localization at such a small scale is expected to be challenging, Pahlavan notes. His lab will use a combination of empirical measurements, computational modeling and studies of phantoms (structures that simulate the characteristics of the human body) to complete the work.

"This research will help propel the growth of this powerful technology in the United States and help pave the way for standardization for body-area networks," Pahlavan says. "That growth, in turn, has both considerable economic implications and significant potential to improve healthcare."

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