A wearable airbag for the elderly that will inflate as it senses an individual beginning to fall is being developed in the hope it will offer a soft landing and protection from injury.
The belt device called the Wolk, which has been created by Filippo van Hellenberg Hubar, deploys an air curtain around the hip area when its built-in sensors detect certain acceleration and angular velocities that indicate a wearer is taking a tumble. The reusable device is powered by a small gas capsule that can inflate the airbag in vital fractions of a second, and afterwards it is then rolled back up and ready to go again once the owner has replaced the gas capsule.
It can be worn under clothing and has a small speaker features on the belt to indicate to the wearer that it has been put on correctly.
Falls among the elderly pose a significant risk, particularly in winter months, with Age UK quoted in a Reuters report "globally we're talking about many thousands of falls every day, with huge healthcare costs the world over".
The Wolk was unveiled in 2015 as a proof of concept but since then the company has been working with Delft University of Technology to refine the concept and its algorithms, to bring it closer to real world testing. A Reuters video has shown researchers are tweaking its on-board computers to fix the biggest challenge of identifying when falls aren't occurring. This will ensure the Wolk doesn't accidentally go off when the wearer makes certain movements, such as simply bending down to pick something up.
A team of testers in the form of actors are being used to mimic the movements and walking gait of the elderly and simulating falls to improve the intelligence of its microprocessors. "We can calculate accelerations and angular velocities of the body – and combined with our models of how humans move we can detect whether there is a fall about to occur or not. Then we have a little microprocessor in here, which processes the information and then inflate the airbags," said Heike Vallery, a researcher from Delft. It is also expected to be tested out in five nursing homes according to the report.
If all goes to plan (and no injuries occur in said nursing homes) Hubar is hoping to get the product to market within a year – and it couldn't come soon enough believes James Goodwin, Chief Scientist at Age UK:
"Taken into the marketplace I think the impact of it could be very high, with a lot of benefits to older people and to health systems... older people themselves will really welcome this device if it's going to prevent them suffering the pain and long-term injuries that result from falling over."