Wearable health monitors have been available for some time, providing feedback on functions such as heart rate and blood pressure. They represent the tip of a potentially huge health and fitness market, from athletes and emergency services personnel to patients both in and recently discharged from hospital, who could benefit from real-time, intelligent wireless body monitoring of vital signs. Telemetry technology provider Toumaz has developed an ultra-low power system to wirelessly monitor heart rate, ECG, temperature and physical activity. The Sensium Life Platform has just been used to monitor the health of team members during a record-breaking 4,000-kilometer (2,485-mile) transantarctic expedition that not only made the fastest vehicle crossing of the Antarctic, but was also the first expedition to use biofuels extensively in Antarctica, and featured the first bio-fuelled vehicle ever to reach the South Pole.

Team leader for the expedition's science program was Professor Chris Toumazou FRS, CEO of expedition sponsor Toumaz and also director of the Winston Wong Centre for Bio-Inspired Technology at Imperial College London.

The ten-man team, billed as "A team of ordinary men with regular jobs," was continuously monitored via small Sensium-based devices worn on the chest that allowed full movement. The devices wirelessly collected and processed data on the physical effects of -40C (-40F) temperatures, including ECG, heart rate, physical activity and other indicators of stress.

The data was transmitted in real-time to computers in the expedition's mobile laboratories and also sent via satellite phone to researchers back at Imperial College London for further analysis.

Conditions in Antarctica – the coldest, windiest, driest place on Earth – were the worst in 18 years, but the Sensium devices met the challenge, providing data on physiological responses that reportedly hadn't been possible before.

“This is the experience of a lifetime for mind and body and I feel hugely privileged to be here," said Ray Thompson, Senior Research Associate at the Winston Wong Centre. "And when you’re standing at the bottom of the world at the South Pole, you think of the hardy men who traveled here almost 100 years ago without the benefit of our modern technology. What effect is the temperature, the hard work of keeping warm, the stress and the altitude having on my London born-and-bred body? It's going to be very interesting to see the results.”

Although trialed in such an extreme environment, such devices have enormous potential for day-to-day monitoring applications, such as on patients in palliative care, professional athletes, special forces and emergency personnel, and post acute/discharged patients.

The techie stuff

The Sensium Life Platform features three components: the Sensor Node, Bridge and Gateway Server. The Sensor Node includes a range of sensors for wirelessly monitoring heart rate, single lead ECG and physical activity. Additional sensors and vital signs can be integrated. The sensor nodes each run on one button or coin cell battery with an operational life of around 120 hours continuous use.

The Sensium Bridge includes the infrastructure to wirelessly connect to 16 Sensium enabled sensor nodes at the front end, and WiFI abg or Ethernet at the back end.

The Sensium Gateway Server acts as a router and supports multiple bridges.

A USB/UART Sensium base station supporting up to eight sensor nodes and easy integration with Windows XP/Vista is also available.

More on the expedition

The expedition retraced the steps of the famous Fuchs and Hillary crossing, beginning at Union Glacer on the west coast of Antarctica on November 25 and arriving in the South Pole on December 2. After completing their coast-to-coast crossing on December 9 at the Ross Ice Shelf, the team returned to Union Glacier on December 17, 20 days, 12 hours and 30 minutes after setting out.
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