The world is undergoing dramatic demographic change: By 2050, according to the US Census Bureau, about 20 percent of the population in the US will be 65 or older. In Japan, this development is even more significant: By 2030, Japan’s average age will be above 52 years, with 30 percent of the total population 65 or older.
Behind these figures, there are millions of people just like you and me reaching older ages. At a first glance, this is good news. Who is opposed to a longer life? But if we take a closer look, this has far-reaching consequences. Elderly people need support to cope with everyday life and often extensive care because not all of them will stay well and fit. Nonetheless, seniors still want to enjoy their lives to a full extent, meaning to live independently for as long as possible in their homes. In return, young people want to live their own lives but with peace of mind, knowing that their parents or grandparents are doing well.
How to solve this dilemma of generations and deal with the challenges? Modern technology is needed to balance both ways of life. Concepts and solutions for so called Ambient Assisted Living (AAL) come into play, making life easier, more secure, and comfortable for the elderly people but also for the caregivers and relatives.
In this scenario, wireless sensors will fulfill important tasks. This includes solutions for monitoring vital functions and ensuring an autonomous and healthy lifestyle with cautious and acceptable control. With regard to flexibility and low maintenance effort, self-powered, batteryless solutions offer unique advantages for an easy, cost-effective, and sustainable implementation of such assistive systems. In addition, health risks, power failure risks, and the effort of changing and disposing of batteries are avoided.
An example is a pill box that records and sends a message if the pills are taken out regularly. The needed energy is provided by an electro-mechanical energy harvester that converts motion into electrical power to immediately make it available for a radio module. Such a converter works like a small dynamo where a magnetic flux is passed through two magnetically conductive laminations by a small but very strong magnet.
A mechanical energy store in the form of a leaf spring builds the interface to the actuation of the converter. If the spring forces exceed the holding power of approximately 3.5 newtons, a movable core flips quickly into its second position, accelerated by the spring. This generates a voltage pulse in the induction coil. With an energy output of 120 µWs, a stabilized voltage of 2 V, and a wireless, batteryless module, it is possible to transmit three radio telegrams per operation.
Each time the pill box is opened, this movement activates the mechanical energy harvester to power the wireless signal sent to an IP gateway, which, for example, can be integrated into a power plug receiver. This forwards the message via a cloud service to the smartphone of a relative or caregiver. Having said that, such AAL solutions are also an attractive chance for service providers to offer new services in this field. Further developments try to use the energy produced by the converter to additionally cover sensory detection if the pill is taken out. The digital information helps to maintain an overview of medicine doses and ensures that elderly people regularly take their pills.
The pill box can be a first component of an even more interconnected approach and can be combined with an intelligent mattress, for example. Here, an integrated batteryless sensor registers the tenant’s activities and sends a notification to a caregiver or relative if there is a remarkable change in daily routines or not enough activity. If no movement is registered in the bed, the nursing staff will be alerted to do a checkup. Combined with extra controls, the wireless mattress can also offer excellent, convenient service. After a person has been in bed for a period of time, certain electrical appliances in the household can be switched off, a night light switched on, and the temperature automatically reduced for healthy sleep. Humidity detection may also be added, sending a notification when appropriate.
These are just a few examples where energy harvesting wireless technology enables seniors to live independently for as long as possible, by retaining their dignity and increasing their safety. There are many more developments for AAL, especially in areas where wired or battery-powered systems would be too elaborate and not cost-effective. With modern technology, we can truly enjoy the prospect of a longer life.