New wearable measures CV vitals through 4 layers of clothing—or fur

Researchers at Imperial College London have developed a new type of sensor that can track vital signs in both humans and animals, suggesting the ever-growing wearables trend is expanding to include pets and livestock.

Lead author Firat Guder, of Imperial’s Department of Engineering, and colleagues published their findings in Advanced Functional Materials this month. They said their work was driven by an awareness that while there are countless fitness tracking devices on the market today for people, the same isn’t true for animals.

“Wearables are expected to play a major role in monitoring health and detecting diseases early,” Guder said in a release. “Our stretchy, flexible invention heralds a whole new type of sensor that can track the health of animals and humans alike over fur or clothing.”

The clothing can be thick, too—the team’s sensor works through as much as four layers of fabric. The device is made of a silicone-water composite that houses a microphone that picks up on soundwaves, like a “watery stethoscope,” first author Yasin Cotur said in the release. Its material allows it to tightly mold to the shape of the fur or clothing it’s placed on top of, “filling any gaps between it and its subject so that no air bubbles get in and dampen the sound.”

The sensor records sounds that are then converted to a digital signal that’s transmitted to a nearby portable computer. The whole process allows people to track animals’ physiology in real-time.

Guder et al. said their novel sensor could have applications beyond standard health measures, including maximizing the ability of sniffer dogs to help humans in tasks like identifying bombs or bodies. Such “dogs with jobs” are trained to exhibit certain behaviors—like sitting or barking, for example—and their heart and breathing rates differ when they exhibit those signals. Tracking vitals while the dogs work, the authors said, could help establish baselines for normal heart and breathing rates so that, when a dog discovers something, scientists could determine how “sure” they are of that detection based on how excited they are.

The researchers said their next steps include testing the sensors in other types of pets beyond dogs, including horses and livestock.