A new low-cost, simple way to measure medical vital signs with radio waves

December 15, 2017

A radio-frequency identification (RFID) tag, used to monitor vital signs, can go into your pocket or be woven into a shirt (credit: Cornell)

Replacing devices based on 19th-century technology* and still in use, Cornell University engineers have developed a simple method for gathering blood pressure, heart rate, and breath rate from multiple patients simultaneously. It uses low-power radio-frequency signals and low-cost microchip radio-frequency identification (RFID) “tags” — similar to the ubiquitous anti-theft tags used in department stores.

The RFID tags measure internal body motion, such as a heart as it beats or blood as it pulses under skin. Powered remotely by electromagnetic energy supplied by a central reader, the tags use a new concept called “near-field coherent sensing.” Mechanical motions (heartbeat, etc.) in the body modulate (modify) radio waves that are bounced off the body and internal organs by passive (no battery required) RFID tags.

The modulated signals detected by the tag then bounce back to an electronic reader, located elsewhere in the room, that gathers the data. Each tag has a unique identification code that it transmits with its signal, allowing up to 200 people to be monitored simultaneously.

Electromagnetic simulations of monitoring vital signs via radio transmission, showing heartbeat sensing (left) and pulse sensing (right) (credit: Xiaonan Hui and Edwin C. Kan/Nature Electronics)

“If this is an emergency room, everybody that comes in can wear these tags or can simply put tags in their front pockets, and everybody’s vital signs can be monitored at the same time. I’ll know exactly which person each of the vital signs belongs to,” said Edwin Kan, a Cornell professor of electrical and computer engineering.

The signal is as accurate as an electrocardiogram or a blood-pressure cuff, according to Kan, who believes the technology could also be used to measure bowel movement, eye movement, and many other internal mechanical motions produced by the body.

The researchers envision embedding the RFID chips in clothing to monitor health in real time, with little or no effort required by the user. They have also developed a method for embroidering the tags directly onto clothing using fibers coated with nanoparticles. A cellphone could read (and display) your vital signs and also transmit them for remote medical monitoring.

The system is detailed in the open-access paper “Monitoring Vital Signs Over Multiplexed Radio by Near-Field Coherent Sensing,” published online Nov. 27 in the journal Nature Electronics. “Current approaches to monitoring vital signs are based on body electrodes, optical absorption, pressure or strain gauges, stethoscope, and ultrasound or radiofrequency (RF) backscattering, each of which suffers particular drawbacks during application,” the paper notes.

* The sphygmomanometer was invented by Samuel Siegfried Karl Ritter von Basch in 1881. Devices based on its basic pressure principle are still in use. (credit: Wellcome Trustees)

Abstract of Monitoring vital signs over multiplexed radio by near-field coherent sensing

Monitoring the heart rate, blood pressure, respiration rate and breath effort of a patient is critical to managing their care, but current approaches are limited in terms of sensing capabilities and sampling rates. The measurement process can also be uncomfortable due to the need for direct skin contact, which can disrupt the circadian rhythm and restrict the motion of the patient. Here we show that the external and internal mechanical motion of a person can be directly modulated onto multiplexed radiofrequency signals integrated with unique digital identification using near-field coherent sensing. The approach, which does not require direct skin contact, offers two possible implementations: passive and active radiofrequency identification tags. To minimize deployment and maintenance cost, passive tags can be integrated into garments at the chest and wrist areas, where the two multiplexed far-field backscattering waveforms are collected at the reader to retrieve the heart rate, blood pressure, respiration rate and breath effort. To maximize reading range and immunity to multipath interference caused by indoor occupant motion, active tags could be placed in the front pocket and in the wrist cuff to measure the antenna reflection due to near-field coherent sensing and then the vital signals sampled and transmitted entirely in digital format. Our system is capable of monitoring multiple people simultaneously and could lead to the cost-effective automation of vital sign monitoring in care facilities.