Rice University students join forces on baby-saving device for developing nations
The ideal system for monitoring a baby’s health would be as simple as one, two, three. Three teams of senior engineering students at Rice University are working to do so wirelessly in neonatal wards in the developing world.
The design teams have built a modular system to monitor an infant’s vital signs with a tablet that can track the progress – or warn of problems – for many babies at once.
The VitaLink system keeps tabs on infants’ breathing, heart rate and body temperature. The system is designed to match the capabilities of nurseries in the developed world but at a cost more realistic to clinics in developing countries where the need is greatest.
Gary Woods, a professor in the practice of computer technology in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and one of the team’s advisers, went to Africa last summer to see how his students could contribute to infant care at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital in Blantyre, Malawi. The hospital has partnered with the Rice 360˚: Institute for Global Health Technologies to develop cost-effective systems. At Queen Elizabeth’s neonatal nursery, a very small staff must care for dozens of babies with no way to monitor a crowded ward all at once.
“I came away with a pretty good idea of what it would take to make this project,” Woods said. He pitched the idea to his senior students last fall. “There were so many interested that we formed three teams,” he said. “Their goal has been to build a system that has a little battery-powered dongle that can record the vital signs of a baby and wirelessly transmit them to a central tablet,” he said.
The three projects and their team members are the iNurse (the BioLink team of Nathan Lo, Abhijit Navlekar, Rahul Rekhi, Fabio Ussher and Eric Palmgren), VitaSign (Gbenga Badipe, Adrian Galindo, Alison Hightman, James Kerwin and John Slack) and the Scalable Wireless Alert Generator, aka SWAG (Yuqiang Mu, Chris Metzler, Kiran Pathakota and Matt Johnson). Each team built a component that contains the necessary electronics and can be linked together at the side of the crib to gather and deliver information.
The iNurse monitors temperature and respiration. The VitaSign adds a low-cost, low-power heart-rate sensor. Both alert caregivers if they sense trouble.
SWAG is where the information comes together. The iNurse and VitaSign are hooked to the SWAG “brick,” which sends data over the air to an Android tablet. The students designed a custom app to give caregivers an up-to-the-minute picture of multiple infants’ health. With its current Bluetooth implementation, the system can monitor several babies, but an upcoming revision to Bluetooth 4 would allow for many more.
Putting 14 students on a project is highly unusual at Rice’s Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen (OEDK), which typically sees teams of three, four or five toiling away on a given task.
“It was like a startup environment where you have different sub-teams working on one larger project,” Rekhi said. “It put more on us to be able to coordinate and ensure that our individual devices and departments could communicate. But it did feel like an entrepreneurial endeavor.”
One member of the SWAG team, Johnson, will demonstrate the system in Ethiopia on behalf of Beyond Traditional Borders (BTB) this summer. “Another team will go to Malawi, so our project will potentially be going to both places,” he said. Johnson said he hopes to come back at the end of the summer “with a lot of good data, and next year we’ll have something really awesome.”
Before it goes to Africa (and before they graduate next month), the students want to make the system robust enough to handle inconsistent power feeds. “Power is constantly in flux at Queen Elizabeth,” said Rekhi, a bioengineering major who worked there as a BTB intern last summer. “We want the battery backup to be able to handle the system in case of a power outage.” The team’s goal is to run the system for months on end on double-A batteries.
They expect future design teams to enhance VitaLink. “By the end of our design cycle, I think we’ve actually done enough hardware implementation that we can hand it off and tell the next team they don’t have to worry about hardware any more,” said Pathakota, an electrical engineering student. “All they need to do is write really good software for it.”
“It needs to be really simple and understand the entire ward,” added Metzler, who also studies electrical engineering. “It needs to be clear to the nurse how each baby is doing.”
Maria Oden, director of the OEDK and a professor in the practice of engineering, and Ashu Sabharwal, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, also advised the teams.