Flexible electronics technology has been around a long time in the form of flexible electrical connections and circuit boards. With more and more intelligent and small electrical components becoming available (nanotech sensors, IC and SOC radios, microprocessors), flexible electronic products are becoming smarter and finding more applications. Here are some interesting devices presented at recent IEEE conferences on Wearable Devices and Flexible Electronics.
Human Performance Monitoring
Aircraft pilots (military and commercial)
The military already uses small contact sensors on pilots and other personnel whose attention and awareness level is a critical part of their assignment. Civilian and commercial personnel in similar important situations will be using these in the future. These devices monitor biological data such as heart rate, perspiration, respiration, and blood pressure. Performance indicators derived from these measurements include alertness, effectiveness, stress, and fatigue.
The recorded data and performance indication of these devices is similar to those for aircraft pilots and personnel with critical functions. The coaching and conditioning staff can determine how much an athlete is stressed. Near-continuous action sports such as soccer, basketball, and hockey might benefit from these devices. In fact, a well-know European soccer team is using these devices in practices and exhibition matches now. Another important use of these devices is injury evaluation, especially concussions. Shock and acceleration monitors in helmets and mouthguards can give near instantaneous information to trainers and doctors.
Blood pressure, skin temperature, respiration rate, heartbeat patterns and rate, blood sugar, brain functions, mouthguards for dental evaluation are a few of the indicators that can be monitored remotely in people. The application for these devices today is the monitoring of critical functions for people with health risks and feedback to individuals on their personal exercise and activities (wristbands, patches, and other wearable packages).
Printed leaflets on paper have been dropped from aircraft since nearly the dawn of aviation. The most critical category is that of alerting people on the ground to imminent danger. Usually, this happens in military conflicts when citizens are asked to evacuate an area that will be bombed, but it is sometimes used to warn of forest fires, floods, storms, and other natural disasters. In many situations, a significant percentage of the affected population can’t read. The US Army recently worked with the FlexTech Alliance to produce inexpensive, small, flat devices (think business card size) that can be dropped like leaflets. They play a recorded spoken message in the appropriate language or dialect when they are picked up (probably triggered by motion sensors).
Temperature Tags for Perishable Food Products
The reduction of size and cost for electronic tags continues to open up markets that previously were impractical. The food processing, shipping, and display market is one good example. Now in development and initial deployment are small inexpensive sensors that can monitor the shipping environment from “farm to market” of food products. One such device has an electronic tag that informs shippers, merchants, or shoppers if the product temperature has exceeded a safe temperature range and has a risk of spoilage or contamination. Future indicators that might be important are transit time, moisture, key chemical concentration, insecticide concentration, and harmful bacteria.