Northwestern University

It looks like a Band-Aid, but it’s a flexible wireless sensor that sits where your throat and chest meet, picking up coughing and breathing problems associated with COVID-19. The device, announced Monday, seeks to monitor early signs of coronavirus infection and the progression of the illness.

Developed in hard-hit Chicago by Northwestern University and the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, the device adheres to the skin below your suprasternal notch — the little well at the base of your throat where airflow is closest to the skin and where tracheostomies are also performed. This patch, however, is non-invasive and is related to a sensor for monitoring speech and swallowing in recovering stroke patients. That design was tuned to track coughing and breathing problems that are central to COVID-19.


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“We don’t use a microphone,” says Professor John Rogers, director of Northwestern University’s Center on Bio-Integrated Electronics. “There are problems with microphones with ambient noise and tremendous invasions of privacy. We use a high-bandwidth, tri-axis accelerometer to measure movement of the surface of the skin” to capture details of breathing and coughing, not unlike a digital stethoscope. 

The patch also detects heart rate and temperature.

Once a day you peel it off and place it on a wireless charger, which triggers the patch to sync its stored data with a nearby iPad. From there the data is uploaded to a HIPAA-compliant cloud where a proprietary AI algorithm examines it for anomalies related to COVID-19. The device has no external ports for power or connectivity, making it easier to disinfect.

Northwestern University COVID-19 sensor

The sensor is delivered to healthcare teams complete with an iPad configured to upload its data to the cloud, and a wireless charger since the device is sealed and has no external connections.


Northwestern University

AI has taken something of beating lately for promising more than it could deliver in health diagnosis.

“We like AI, but we’re not wedded to it. We’re wedded to things that work,” says Rogers. “We use digital filtering algorithms that look for particular signatures in the data. We’re looking for trends, not an absolute gold standard measurement. And we have a good understanding of the underlying physics.” 

At this early stage, the data is double-checked by a trained human before any indications are forwarded to medical providers. Twenty-five test subjects have been wearing the device for two weeks so far, generating about 1,500 hours of history and one terabyte of data.

Arun Jayaraman, research scientist at Shirley Ryan AbilityLab

Arun Jayaraman of the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab leads algorithm development for the new COVID-19 sensor. The team is using AI but backing it up with human confirmation before sending alert to medical providers..


Northwestern University

Missing from the sensor patch is a blood oxygen perfusion sensor, but Rogers suggests that is coming in the near future. Fingertip pulse oximeters, which measure oxygen perfusion, are the latest personal health product to be snapped up after some reports indicated that low blood oxygen was a hallmark of onset of COVID-19

A lab at Northwestern’s Chicago campus is currently producing dozens of new patches a week. It has the ability to scale to hundreds of devices a week before making the patch available for volume manufacturing via license.

Beyond this pandemic, the Northwestern COVID-19 sensor joins an array of activity trackers, glucose monitors, and blood-pressure sensors that suggest we’ll soon wear a clinic’s worth of medical sensors to get in front of health issues before they turn serious. 

“I think that demands a hardware platform that is virtually imperceptible,” says Rogers. “Health care in general will be improved when you move from episodic monitoring of status to continuous. I’ve always thought that makes sense.”

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.

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