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Smart Home Technology Brings Safety and Security To The Elderly

University Of Portsmouth : 02 June, 2010  (Technical Article)
Portsmouth University scientists receive funding for further development of smart home systems incorporating tele-health and other safety systems for elderly residents
Smart houses that recognise when someone is ill or has forgotten to take medication -- or even if the fridge needs replenishing -- are likely to become commonplace in the UK.

Sensors will be able to 'read' the health and well-being of those who live in a house and upload the information to a secure website for a relative or carer living remotely -- even hundreds of miles away -- to see.

Dr Jim Briggs is one of a team of experts in the Faculty of Technology at the University of Portsmouth who have won £128,000 of the £4m given to their university under the government's Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF).

Dr Briggs has 12 years' experience in telemedicine and he is studying ways to capture more information about the minutiae of how we live in order to help build the brains behind the new, advanced sensors in 'smart' homes.

He is working with Newbury-based Smart home technology firm PassivSystems to take some of the ideas to market.

The inter-departmental team, including Dr Misha Filip, Dr Djamel Azzi, and Dr Rinat Khusainov, will test sensors in a `living laboratory' to gather information about what is normal in different environments. The testing and analytics to make a workable, useful 'smart' home have to be rigorous to ensure the sensors can recognise the difference between someone falling over and someone having a nap, for example.

The ever-watchful sensors can also run burglar alarms and turn heating and lighting off in rooms that are not being used.

The equipment could become a salvation for families trying to care for distant relatives.

Dr Briggs said: 'People want to stay in their own homes for as long as possible and installing sensors is about helping them do that while also reassuring their families that Mum or Dad is okay.'

Basic sensors are already commonly used in some homes and carers find them particularly useful for those suffering dementia because they can see instantly if an oven has been left on or the bath taps left running.

'The technologies behind this have been around for many years but we are now integrating them to make sensors much more sophisticated. In theory, sensors could be installed in every room in the house. They could even be linked to the fridge so you can check Mum or Dad is eating properly, on pill dispensing equipment so you can check the right medicine is being taken and on the temperature of the bath water being run.'

Dr Briggs and PassivSystems are working together on a project to develop the algorithms for making sense of the sensor data and presenting it to the user (who may be the carer or a close relative of the person living in a 'smart' home) in a clear and appropriate way.

Fraser Harding, Development Director, PassivSystems, said: 'Smart homes have a significant role to play in our future society. They can help people live independently and comfortably in their homes for longer, provide reassurance for relatives and support to social services.

'But if such sensors are to be used in the monitoring of a loved-one then it is critical they function effectively, which is why we are working with Dr Briggs to ensure the technology we develop is based on best practice research and insight.'

A major problem for elderly people living in their own homes is falls, which account for eight per cent of all ambulance call-outs, said Dr Briggs. If an elderly person in trouble can ring a neighbour then that's fine, but it's not so good if they have to call their son or daughter who lives 100 miles away.

Dr Briggs foresees two main customers for the new technology -- statutory carers including councils; and those choosing telecare in their own homes or choosing residential homes with the technology installed.

'The elderly population is growing and there is a need to care for increasing numbers with less money. Social services are bitterly aware that they are having to do more and more with fewer resources.

'This technology will appeal to carers who want the reassurance of being able to log on to a secure site and check the elderly person's daily routine is unchanged. It is incredibly reassuring for family members to see an elderly relative is safe and well.

'This isn't about installing CCTV cameras in every room; it's about giving relatives and carers a graphic representation of what is going on -- that Mum got out of bed at 8am and boiled the kettle at 8.30am like she does every day. But we want the sensors to be capable of not necessarily ringing alarm bells if Mum happens to feel like a lie in one day or decides to drink juice instead of tea.'

Eventually Dr Briggs hopes to use artificial intelligence to make the systems capable of 'learning' when to trigger an alarm and when to wait.

He said: 'We need to be able to tell the difference between someone falling over and then being in danger and someone just having a longer than average snooze in their armchair.'

Advances in 'smart' homes have been praised by the head of strategic development for the communities, health and care directorate at Southampton City Council, Christopher Hawker. He works from the Wessex Health Innovation and Education Cluster, a consortium of health and care agencies which want to progress local telehealth and telecare services.

Mr Hawker said: 'This is the kind of development which will mean people can live independently for longer in the future -- something most people want to be able to do for as long as possible. It will be a valuable contribution to a range of developments we want to pioneer on local services in the future.'
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