Falls are the leading cause of death from injury among people 65 and older killing more than 400,000 people each year. “This number is projected to increase due to the shift in the baby-boomer population,” said Jun Lu, a recent electrical engineering graduate of the University of California San Diego (BS ’16). “It is a common occurrence, seniors talk about how falling or the fear of falling affects their lives everyday but there is not a widely accepted solution.”
For Lu, that number became real when his great grandmother died after a fall. Together with electrical engineering graduate students Aida Shahi and Borhan Vasli (who are both specializing in machine learning), and Gabriel Frischer, a third year neuroscience major at UC San Diego, Lu created a device to protect seniors from this kind of accident.
The device, called the AirSave impact protection system, took second place at the UC San Diego Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering’s design competition in June. The competition was part of the university’s Aging and Innovation Initiative and is the result of a collaboration between the Jacobs School of Engineering and the Stein Institute for Research on Aging. The goal for the projects in the competition was to improve quality of life for senior citizens.
The device includes a set of four air bags (one protecting the neck and cranium and three around the waist for hip protection) and a CO2 cartridge from a paintball gun to inflate them just before hitting the ground.
The students are using the resources in the UC San Diego EnVision Arts and Engineering Maker Studio to fabricate prototypes. “We used the 3D printers to fabricate the airbags and the housing for the electrical components, and other tools like the function generators,” said Lu. “It’s a collaborative space, so we were also able to come up with ideas by talking to other students.”
“The AirSave Team was in the Maker Studio nearly every hour that we were open, and it is no surprise that their hard work and dedication earned them top marks in the competition,” said Jesse DeWald, the facility’s director. “I think the best part of the AirSave Team using the EnVision Maker Studio, is that they inspired the other students around them to think about these very important problems and to help them realize that they have the tools and abilities to design the solutions to the problems.”
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During their research, they found that fatal falls occur mainly due to an impact of the hip, however impacts to the spine, neck and head are also common and can be catastrophic for the seniors. “We wanted to create something all-encompassing,” said Frischer.
“We learned a lot about the process of designing something,” said Frischer. “The biggest lesson was that we needed to design for the people we were making the device for. Initially, we thought we wanted to create a vest, but after talking to seniors, we decided on an exoskeleton.”
The change came about after the students spoke with residents at the La Costa Glen retirement community in Carlsbad and similar facilities.
“Everyone has a different style,” said Frischer. “It became clear that the seniors wanted a device they could wear underneath their clothes and still be comfortable. The frame of the exoskeleton is made of impact-absorbing foam, which adds an addition layer of protection on top of the airbags. Our design is unique, light, completely concealable under the wearers clothing and highly protective.”
The AirSave system includes a sensor that collects acceleration and coordination data and determines whether the person is falling, or just bending over to pick something up.
“We’re still working to improve the algorithm,” said Lu. “It’s pretty good though – the only thing it can’t differentiate is the jumping motion.”
When the AirSave team demonstrated their device during their presentation at the electrical engineering design competition in June, Frischer performed an actual tumble while wearing an accelerometer prototype so that the audience could see the rapid acceleration data from the sensor on the screen.
“The next step is to connect the airbag inflation component to the sensing component, which requires a high voltage battery, said Lu, who plans to work on the project full time next year. “The best part is, this is only the beginning.”