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Smart PPE project receives NSF RAPID grant

Sensors integrated into masks could assess proper fit, health risks

Northwestern University researchers have received a $200,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop smart face masks embedded with battery-free sensors to assess proper fit and monitor health.

This project is among the latest at Northwestern to receive a rapid research (RAPID) grant from the NSF, which has called for immediate proposals that have potential to address the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

hester smart ppe
Josiah Hester

Led by Northwestern’s Josiah Hester, the team aims to integrate tiny, lightweight, battery-free devices into face masks for use in the hospital or home. By using already available sensors, such as accelerometers and motion and strain sensors, the device will be able to tell if the mask is too loose or improperly suctioned onto the face. It also will be able to sense if the mask wearer is fatigued or having difficulty breathing.

“We want to make these sensors small enough and cheap enough to be used on every single piece of PPE in the country, numbering tens of billions,” said Hester, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering in Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering. “Because time is of the essence, we are doing our best to use what we already have. We are leveraging techniques that are built on solid literature in sensing. We do not want to re-invent the wheel.”

This project also builds on Hester’s previous work to develop battery-free devices that can harvest ambient energy without losing their memory during intermittent power outages. With the RAPID funding, his team will build new energy harvesting, battery-free hardware and software to keep on-mask sensors powered and maintenance free, without the need for recharging batteries or for long power cords. 

This project also is one of several current efforts led by Northwestern researchers who are on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis.

“Our work is motivated by the fact that no clinician, caregiver or person going to the grocery store is going to plug their mask into a wall,” Hester said.

We want to make these sensors small enough and cheap enough to be used on every single piece of PPE in the country, numbering tens of billions.

Josiah Hester
computer engineer

The Northwestern team plans to release an early version of the smart masks for pilot testing by the end of this summer. Then, it will release all designs, schematics, software and performance data, so other researchers can use or extend the work. 

“Communities or hospitals can quite literally take our design files, email them to one of the many fabrication companies around the nation,” Hester said, “and have working devices by the end of the week.” 

The project, “Low-cost, batteryless smart personal protective equipment tackling the COVID-19 pandemic,” is funded by NSF award number 2032408. Northwestern’s Oliver Cossairt and Nabil Alshurafa are co-principal investigators on the project.

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