Public Release: 

Study Says Machine Sensors Applicable To Human Ills

Penn State

University Park, Pa. --- "Smart" sensors and other technology developed to monitor machines and prevent system failures can and ought to be used to prevent sudden cardiac death and broken bones due to osteoporosis, say researchers at Penn State's Applied Research Laboratory (ARL).

Dr. Robert J. Hansen, ARL chief scientist and associate director, is chairman of a Predictive Diagnostics Team convened to study the possibility that technology developed for machine maintenance could be used to maintain human health. The team is one of eight assembled by Sandia National Laboratory under the sponsorship of the Koop Foundation and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Hansen and Dr. David Hall, professor of electrical engineering and senior research associate at ARL, are developing a "roadmap" to identify the crucial steps and time frame required.

Hansen and Hall presented their "roadmap" in a working paper meant to stimulate discussion among the Predictive Diagnostics Team at the Biomedical Technology Roadmap Workshop held in Albuquerque, N.M. during April 21-24.

"We recognize that people are not machines and that this is not an easy problem," Hansen says. Nevertheless, he adds, "it appears from our experience and study that a lot of the techniques developed for the military battlefield and conditioned-based maintenance of machines can be applied to humans."

The same sensors and signal processors, automated reasoning systems and data fusion methods used to create smart weapons and super sensitive surveillance systems, can be used to combat disease, the two researchers say.

Hall predicts that in about five years, a person could go to a physician's office and insert an arm or a leg into an acoustic measuring device that would identify incipient cracks or other flaws in the bone. Although an x-ray can now detect bone flaws, it can also cause radiation-linked side effects.

Using battlefield signal processing and acoustic sensing devices, checking the status of bones could become as easy and safe as taking a blood pressure reading is today.

Hall thinks that within the next six to 15 years less hazardous acoustic techniques will be coupled with better identification of bone failure precursors to enable physicians to identify when patients need more aggressive treatment to prevent broken bones .

New technology coupled with better identification of precursors could also help cardiac patients, Hansen says. He points out that researchers already know that a healthy heart exhibits complex, variable electrical activity except for the period just before or during sudden cardiac death when it becomes regular. This parallels complex mechanical systems which also show no regularity until a fault occurs which leads to system failure.

"In 10 to 15 years, heart patients should be able to put on the equivalent of a 'wrist watch' that is a wireless link to a hospital," Hall says. The constant surveillance will alert physicians as soon as a patient becomes at risk so that they will be able to intervene in "the golden 20 minutes" when drug therapy can be most effective.

Penn State's ARL, a Navy-oriented facility, was chosen to lead the Predictive Diagnostics Team because of its success in transferring military technology to civilian applications. ARL, which was 50 years old last year, has made significant contributions to fluid mechanics and acoustics that have been applied to naval and commercial vehicle propulsion systems, drag reduction in ships, planes and land vehicles, ship, submarine and airplane propeller designs, pump and fan designs and other applications ranging from the U.S. Space Shuttle to vacuum cleaners to heart valves.

Besides Hansen and Hall, the Predictive Diagnostics team includes Dr. Joseph Cusamano, associate professor of engineering science and mechanics, and Dr. Melvin Horwith, professor of endocrinology, diabetes and metabolism at Penn State's Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. Also participating are engineers and physicians from Massachusetts General Hospital, Case Western Reserve University, the National Science Foundation, Beth Israel Hospital/Harvard Medical School, Creighton University and the Office of Naval Research.


Barbara Hale (814) 865-9481 (office) (814) 238-0997 (home)
Vicki Fong (814) 865-9481 (office) (814) 238-1221 (home)

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