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Grad Student’s Serendipity Leads to Device to Thwart SIDS

June 4, 2007

A visit by University of Texas at Arlington Electrical Engineering graduate student Hung Cao to a hospital nursery room to see his new-born son initiated an idea leading to the development of a device that could help prevent deaths from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). The device monitors a child’s breathing and initiates an alarm if the infant stops breathing for a predetermined time.

“I watched as nurses went from one crib to another, checking on the babies,” said Cao, “And I wondered if there was some way I could always know that my son was doing okay. That’s when I thought of the sensors I had been working with.” Cao is part of a team at UT Arlington’s Automation & Robotics Research Institute (ARRI). The systems they were building were meant to monitor the structural and operational health of inanimate objects, but other types of sensors could be useful to monitor a living creature’s health.

Cao and his student colleagues at ARRI had been working with Electrical Engineering Associate Professor J-C. Chiao on a project utilizing gas sensors. They discovered that a carbon dioxide sensor could detect exhaled air from a distance of about 50 centimeters (20 inches). This led them to design a system utilizing this sensor, plus a radio frequency identification (RFID) tag and receiver. If the sensor detects a reduction of carbon dioxide, the device transmits an alert via RFID.

While the system worked easily in the laboratory, installing it in a home or hospital nursery setting would take more creative thinking. Most SIDS-related sensors are invasive, requiring a device that attaches in some way to the child. Dr. Chiao wanted something less troublesome and more comfortable for both infants and parents. Their solution was to attach sensors on the sides of the crib instead of the infant and mount the wireless RF module away from the infant to avoid concerns of wireless signals. “We thought we could attach an array of them to make sure the baby was facing at least one of the sensors,” said Cao. “And, if we have an ID for each sensor, we will know the direction that he was facing.”

But what if the baby is lying on its back? Cao thought of the colorful mobiles often seen above baby cribs; a sensor could be mounted there, too. Working with Dr. Chiao, Cao developed a prototype to test the effectiveness of the sensor mechanism and wireless transmission of sensor and tag data; it achieved good results.

Cao and Dr. Chiao have filed a patent for the system and hope to see it quickly installed in hospital nurseries, where the unique ID number of the baby's crib RFID tag could not only send an alert but also automatically display the infant's health record on a computer screen for the nursing staff. Cao’s initial thought has led to a potential solution to SIDS, which accounts for about 2,500 infant deaths per year in the United States, according to the American SIDS Institute.