Can we keep the elderly safe by tracking them with radar?

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Americans are growing older, fast. In 2000, people 65 and over made up 12 percent of the population, and by 2030, that number is expected to climb to 19 percent. As a result, “elderly monitoring” products — products designed to help loved ones keep an eye on ailing parents such as GPS bracelets, motion sensors, and so-called “granny cams” -— have started popping up in online stores and specialized pharmacies all over the US.

Unfortunately, most of these systems have huge drawbacks that would make anyone reticent to use them. GPS systems, for instance, can really only tell you a person’s location, not how well they’re doing. And cameras infringe on a person’s privacy in a big way. That’s why researchers have turned to technology that you’re much more likely to see in an airport than in your aging parent’s home: radar.

Radar, scientists say, is ideal for those who wish to remain independent in their own homes, but still like access to the security that comes with knowing someone or something is checking up on them. “The algorithm is smart enough to discriminate between two closely resembling activities — sitting and falling,” says Moeness Amin, an engineering professor at Villanova University in Pennsylvania who is working on developing the system. “And once the radar declares that a person has fallen, it sends a signal to the mobile phones of family members and neighbors, as well as to first responders.”

Designed primarily for people living alone, the system makes use of radar units that can fit in a hand. These units send out electromagnetic waves into the surrounding environment that return with modified frequencies when they hit an object or a person. “Each limb in your body, your head and your torso, reflects a frequency that is different from that one that was sent,” Amin says. “And those changes are the markers that we can use to classify the type of motion.” Amin and his team of researchers can therefore tell the difference between a person who is sitting down and someone who has fallen down with a cane in hand. They can also use the technology to monitor a person’s heart rate and breathing. Moreover, the use of radar technology means that whoever receives an alert will be able to tell where a fall or a cardiovascular event occurred in a person’s home.

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“Can we keep the elderly safe by tracking them with radar?”