New Life to Old Technology: Using Radar to Remotely Detect Human Vital Signs


As part of my senior year research at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, I've been working with millimeter waves. My project involves using millimeter waves to monitor people's heart rate and breathing from afar. We call this technology non-contact vital sign sensing, and it has staggering potential.

For example, first respondents can use millimeter waves after an earthquake to scan for life signs in a collapsed building. Future Wi-Fi routers or smart speakers might incorporate this technology to monitor the heart rate of seniors who are living alone. If an older adult were to go into cardiac arrest, such a device would generate an alarm at an emergency response center, and an ambulance would then be dispatched.

I like to dream big, but I'm under no illusions when it comes to the practical application of cutting-edge technologies. I recently took part in the National Science Foundation I-Corps program, which is designed to get scientists out of the lab and start them thinking about marketing their inventions.

My team and I worked on a low-cost, low-power chemical sensor. We specifically looked at cleanroom applications in the manufacture of integrated circuits. There are lots of abrasive and caustic chemicals used in this process, and you'd think that companies would want to monitor their levels.

However, our marketing study showed that the opposite was true. The people we interviewed said they weren't especially interested. It wasn't an exhaustive exercise, but it gave me some insight into the way some businesses operate. They won't implement a new technology until a mishap occurs, or they have to comply with a regulation. 

From Government Research to Consumer Products

After I graduate, my dream job is to work for a government-sponsored entity like Sandia National Labs. A lot of the technology we take for granted—like the internet and GPS—was publicly funded. Memory foam mattresses and scratch-resistant eyeglasses use technology pioneered by NASA. Other technologies, like drones, began as military hardware, but now have civilian applications.

The non-contact vital sign-sensing project uses the same radar technology that was developed by the military decades ago to track flying airplanes. I'm using these 6G signals to locate and capture the tiny fluctuations that indicate cardiac and pulmonary activity. 

Automating Our Experiments and Our Diagnostic Procedures

Working on our prototypes involves some significant challenges. Because we're dealing with invisible millimeter radio waves, it's hard to tell whether our signal sources are working. To make sure all our gear is in operating order, we have to perform complicated diagnostics and calibration procedures that involve dozens of steps. This process is time-intensive if done manually.

As part of our research, we are also exploring the impact of shifting frequencies on the accuracy of our detection technology. These experiments require us to make dozens of rapid changes to the RF signal generator inputs every second, and this is something that also requires a laborious setup.

Checking our gear and cycling through so many frequencies would have taken forever with traditional testing equipment, and so we decided to automate the process. To do this, we connected a Keysight E8254A RF signal generator to a PC running a LabVIEW virtual instrument (VI) that would change its settings multiple times a second.

We were able to incorporate all the functions we needed into a single instance of LabVIEW. With other signal generators, we would have needed to run several VIs to collect the necessary data. However, Keysight's tight integration with LabVIEW allowed us to collect, analyze, and transfer measurements to our data analysis software using a single application.

On average, we saved a couple of hours a day by automating the equipment verification and frequency cycling processes. More importantly, we were able to create more data points and find new ways to collect data. The Keysight RF signal generator paired with LabVIEW gave us the freedom to design new types of tests that were made possible through automation.

Outstanding Support and Learning Tools

The E8254A is a complex scientific apparatus that generates FMCW (frequency-modulated continuous wave) radar signals. It has dozens of functions, many of which are accessible via the instrument panel, and others which can only be activated with software.

There's a lot to learn before you can start using such a piece of equipment. Keysight's documentation makes it easy to get up and running in next to no time. Despite the complexity and the density of the subject matter, the company's user manuals are written in plain English. They're easy to understand and logically sequenced.

Keysight also provides valuable online assistance through its user forums and a library of webinars that cover basic measurement techniques, device calibration, and advanced equipment features, among other things.

These online tools, combined with Keysight's high-quality testing equipment and automation tools, are of tremendous value to academic research facilities and commercial labs. Instead of spending hours entering the same commands over and over again, graduate students and young engineers can devote their time to learning how to take more accurate measurements, and how to use data science to improve the quality of their analyses.

Shaping the Next Generation of Engineers

Through these initiatives, Keysight has created a testing and learning environment that is helping to shape the next generation of engineers. The precision and adaptability of the company's equipment have had a tremendous impact on my research.

The online training and support resources have also proven invaluable to me. I've taken a few webinars that helped me expand my knowledge of testing and measurement in areas that don't involve my vital-sign sensing project. Learning about other technologies and other areas of engineering helps give me a fresh perspective on what I'm doing.

Webinars and discussion forums can help expose you to fresh perspectives in your RF research.

The user forums are also incredibly active, and the level of knowledge of the online Keysight community is remarkable. However, I've yet to ask a question online. The documentation supplied with our Keysight RF signal generator is so comprehensive that I've yet to encounter a situation it doesn't address. 

Planting the Seeds of Innovation

I have one more year left in my master's studies and, after that, I may go for my Ph.D. I'm also thinking of commercializing my remote vital-sign-sensing technology, but I’m not a marketer, and I see myself focusing on new research instead.

Right now, I'm working with WPI, Quinsigamond College, and the American Institute of Manufacturing Photonics to set up the LEAP lab, which is a facility for education, applied research, and prototyping. We'll be focusing on integrated circuits that use photons instead of electrons to transmit data.

Keysight is the lab's primary equipment partner. They've been with us since the start of the procurement process and are helping us build a new facility that provides high-end testing equipment to academic and commercial entities.

AIM Photonics, Keysight, and our academic partners are bringing together cutting-edge tools that are too expensive for most university or industry research labs—and making them accessible to the people who need them. We are building the future of engineering in Massachusetts.

Plant the seeds of innovation and see what grows. @Keysight

We have planted the seeds of innovation. Let’s see what grows. I am looking forward to the many ways that young engineers are going to transform the world in the years to come