Sensing danger in baby cribs
Like many new fathers, Hung Cao stared in amazement behind the maternity unit’s observation window when his son was born six years ago. But one question haunted him: “How do I know he’s OK?”
That’s when the engineer in Cao took over.
The newly minted engineering doctoral graduate had been working on something quite un-baby-like. He was part of a UT Arlington team tasked with building a wireless sensor that detected gas escaping from long-idled missiles. If gas leaks, the missile might not function.
He approached his Ph.D. adviser, electrical engineering Professor J.-C. Chiao, with the idea that the missile sensor might be adapted to determine if a baby was exhaling carbon dioxide. The two researchers have now received a patent for a device aimed at saving babies’ lives through improved and rapid detection of breathing problems, including sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), which typically occurs in infants under a year old while the child is sleeping. Cases are classified as SIDS when there’s no other explainable cause of death.
“Our sensors let you know if the baby is breathing normally without the wires and breathing tubes.”
Drs. Chiao and Cao are working with Heather Beardsley, a research engineer at TMAC, formerly the Texas Manufacturing Assistance Center, on a wireless system that can detect carbon dioxide exhaled by babies as they sleep. More importantly, the sensors know—quickly enough for intervention—when infants are not expelling carbon dioxide.
“This has a chance to save lives,” says Chiao, who holds the Janet and Mike Greene and Jenkins Garrett professorships in the College of Engineering. “Our system provides additional information non-invasively. It should reduce false alarms that desensitize parents or caregivers.”
Cao drew inspiration from his son’s birth.
“I was watching him sleep so soundly through the glass in the hospital nursery, but I couldn’t tell if everything was OK,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘Why couldn’t that same type of system be used for detecting carbon dioxide, which people breathe out.’ The sensors could be mounted around the baby to let people know whether he’s breathing normally.”
The Texas Medical Research Collaborative (TxMRC) recently awarded the researchers a grant to develop a commercially viable carbon dioxide-based monitoring system and manufacture a prototype with mass-production features in mind. TxMRC is a consortium of UT Arlington, UT Dallas, the University of North Texas Health Science Center, Texas Instruments, and the Texas Health Research & Education Institute that funds collaborative medical technology projects to solve critical health care issues. UT Arlington is partnering with the UNT Health Science Center on the SIDS project.
The sensors could be attached to a baby’s crib or car seat. They are less cumbersome than current technology that requires a breathing apparatus being placed around the infant’s nose.
“Our sensors let you know if the baby is breathing normally without the wires and breathing tubes,” Chiao says.
Beardsley says the team is working to reduce the cost of the device to speed its transition to the marketplace. “That’s the key to commercialization. People are willing to pay $100 for the device but not several thousand dollars.”
She believes the system will be more accurate than what exists now.
“There are audio, video, and motion detection systems to monitor infants, but it is still difficult to determine whether a baby is breathing,” she says. “Those current systems aren’t being endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics anymore. The CO2 system would be better. It represents a significant risk reduction in the health care industry.