CORVALLIS, Ore. - Students at Oregon State University have designed a device to track individuals in an indoor space, creating a system that can function where conventional GPS technology doesn't work.

The technology could have broad applications, such as in elderly care facilities to help detect when a patient has fallen, or find them if they become lost. It could also be used in research, to learn how activity levels are affected by medications or supplements.

The work was done by three senior students in electrical and computer engineering - Samuel House, Sean Connell and Ian Milligan - based on a request from the Oregon Center on Aging and Technology at Oregon Health & Science University. The initial goal was an accurate and affordable way to track elderly people in their homes for studies on healthy aging and independent living. Initial funding was provided by the LIFE Scholars Summer Research Program.

"I don't think I could have done as good a job, so I left them to their own devices," said Patrick Chiang, their adviser and an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at OSU. "What they were able to demonstrate in a short period of time was remarkable."

The system uses common and affordable technologies in a new way. This includes radio frequency identification tags and dead reckoning, or the process of estimating location based on one's starting position and movement data, such as time traveled, speed and direction. Dead reckoning is only accurate for short durations, but the RFID tags placed around the home pinpoint the user's location as they pass by and reduces the error rate.

The small device can be attached to the top of a shoe, and can incorporate additions like Bluetooth, so data could be sent to a smartphone or a GPS unit that turns on when the user steps out of a defined boundary.

For their project, the three students received OSU's Celebrating Undergraduate Excellence Award for engineering, the Industry Award at the OSU Engineering Expo for electrical and computer engineering senior design projects, and a first place award in the Analog Design Contest at OSU sponsored by Texas Instruments.

The work is part of a larger research program by Chiang, to build tiny, low-power, wireless devices to collect a variety of biometric information including heart rate and respiration. This could provide continuous monitoring of vital signs for researchers studying the elderly or other populations with health risks.

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Patrick Chiang, 541-737-5551