UK Researchers Integrating Heart-Beat Sensors into Shopping Trolleys to Detect Stroke Risks

25-05-2021 | By Robin Mitchell

Recently UK researchers have started to install sensors into shopping trolleys to identify those at risk of stroke. What is atrial fibrillation, what are the researchers doing, and why is this a great example of utilizing sensors in everyday items?

What is atrial fibrillation?

A stroke is a medical emergency that occurs when the blood supply to parts of the brain is interrupted. Strokes are potentially lethal as the reduction of blood to any area of the brain suffers from oxygen deprivation, and this, in turn, damages brain cells. Unlike many other cells in the human body, the brain is not able to repair broken connections or dead brain cells, but instead forms new connections (which means re-training). Simply put, any kind of brain damage often results in life-long disabilities, memory loss, and reduce motor controls.

In the UK, strokes affect an individual every five minutes, and each year there are more than 100,000 cases of stroke. While there are multiple causes of strokes, atrial fibrillation is one that is believed to affect 1.2 million people in the UK. Atrial fibrillation is the irregularity in the generation of electrical pulses from the heart that cause it to pump blood. A normal heartbeat has specific waves of strong electrical excitement, but atrial fibrillation would see noise-like electrical waves in between heartbeats. 

Researchers Integrate Sensors into Shopping Trollies

Because atrial fibrillation can cause blood clots which result in increased stroke risk, researchers have turned to look for ways to identify those who may be at risk. Performing an ECG on the entire population is expensive and time-consuming, but researchers have been able to identify an everyday activity that could help gather data and identify those at risk.

Recording heat-beats accurately often requires a user to have sensors placed across their body so that the electrical potential between the two (which relates to the electrical activity of the heart), can be detected. As such, researchers from Liverpool John Moores University have integrated heart-beat sensors into shopping trolley cart handles. When the users of the trolley place both hands onto the trolley handle, pre-existing technology integrated into the cart can record the electrical potential and therefore gather data for scientists to research. Currently, around 2,000 people have been recruited to try out the system, and shops being used in the trial include Sainsbury’s and Lloyds Pharmacy. 

“Around 30,000 people suffer a stroke each year as a consequence of a treatable, but often undiagnosed, irregular heartbeat. Using proven sensor technology, we are intending to check peoples heartbeat while they shop, and in doing so, we estimate that we will save between 20 and 40 people suffering a stroke in the future.” Ian Jones, professor of cardiovascular nursing at Liverpool John Moores University 

An Excellent Example of “Sensor-in-Application”

The integration of heart-beat sensors into shopping trolley carts is an excellent example of how modern technology can be integrated into an everyday item. Furthermore, it also shows how people’s health can be monitored on the go and potentially provide life-saving data. The use of a sensor bar in the trolley handle is highly ingenious when considering how trolley carts are pushed, and the requirements for measuring the electrical potential of the heart (i.e. the two activities were made for each other).

However, there is a concern for privacy and the integration of sensors into products that people may not be aware of. Of course, monitoring heartbeats is hardly a breach of privacy, and the data could be invaluable to researchers of strokes and other heart-related conditions. But, what if researchers wanted to take this further with blood type? How about blood content? What about integrating small cameras to detect changes in the skin?

Researchers should be extremely careful when integrating technology into products without clearly informing customers. While the data gathered could be invaluable to researchers, it could also come at the cost of customer privacy, and just like the IoT industry, devices with integrated technology that may seem to be benign could turn out to be a nightmare.

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By Robin Mitchell

Robin Mitchell is an electronic engineer who has been involved in electronics since the age of 13. After completing a BEng at the University of Warwick, Robin moved into the field of online content creation, developing articles, news pieces, and projects aimed at professionals and makers alike. Currently, Robin runs a small electronics business, MitchElectronics, which produces educational kits and resources.