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Low-cost AI sensor could save children, pets left in vehicles

Image credit: Welcomia - Dreamstime

Researchers in Canada have developed a small and inexpensive sensor that triggers an alarm when children or pets are left alone in vehicles.

The device created by the team at the University of Waterloo combines radar technology with artificial intelligence (AI) to detect unattended children or animals in locked cars with 100 per cent accuracy.

Small enough to fit in the palm of a hand at 3cm in diameter, the device is designed to be attached to a vehicle's rear-view mirror or mounted under the roof. It sends out radar signals that are reflected back by people, animals and objects in the vehicle – then built-in AI analyses these reflected signals.

“It addresses a serious, worldwide problem,” said George Shaker, an engineering professor at Waterloo. “This system is so affordable, it could become standard equipment in all vehicles.”

Development of the wireless, disc-shaped sensor was funded in part by a major automotive parts manufacturer that is aiming to bring it to market by the end of 2020.

Analysis by the device determines the number of occupants and their locations in the vehicle. This information could be used to set rates for ride-sharing services and toll roads or qualify vehicles for car-pool lanes.

Graduate students Mostafa Alizadeh, left, and Hajar Abedi position a doll, modified to simulate breathing, in a minivan during testing of a new sensor

Graduate students Mostafa Alizadeh, left, and Hajar Abedi position a doll, modified to simulate breathing, in a minivan during testing of a new sensor

Image credit: University of Waterloo

The primary purpose of the device, however, is to detect when a child or pet had been accidentally, or deliberately, left locked in a car. A scenario like this could result in serious harm or death in extremely hot or cold weather.

In such cases, the system would prevent vehicle doors from locking and sound an alarm to alert the driver, passengers and other people in the area that there is a problem.

“Unlike cameras, this device preserves privacy and it doesn't have any blind spots because radar can penetrate seats, for instance, to determine if there is an infant in a rear-facing car seat,” said Shaker.

The low-power device, which runs on a vehicle's battery, distinguishes between living beings and inanimate objects by detecting subtle breathing movements.

Researchers are now exploring the use of that capability to monitor the vital signs of drivers: indicating signs of fatigue, distraction, impairment, illness or other issues.

The study was presented at the IEEE Sensors 2019 conference in Canada in October.

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