It's a parent's worst nightmare: a young child is accidentally left in a locked car on a warm and sunny day. The closed windows turn the car into a greenhouse, and the child dies of heatstroke.
In a key first step toward preventing such tragedies, three undergraduate engineering students at Johns Hopkins University have turned technology from a popular video game console into a detector for children left behind in dangerously overheated vehicles. The young inventors tinkered with parts from a Kinect motion-sensing device, normally used with the Xbox 360 game console, and came up with the heart of a new system aimed at "seeing" children left in locked cars and summoning help.
Although the project needs further work, the students' sponsor said their proof-of-concept prototype is a significant move toward reducing the number of children lost in locked-car incidents.
"These are preventable deaths that deserve our attention," said Eileen McDonald, a faculty member in the Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Policy, part of the Bloomberg School of Public Health. "The students showed that they could detect even the tiniest movements associated with a child left in the backseat of a car. We don't have a perfect model yet, but we're hoping another group will pick up where they left off and bring it closer to becoming a commercial product."
The project was developed during a two-semester mechanical engineering senior design course offered by the university's Whiting School of Engineering. Teams of three or four undergraduates were each given a small budget to design and build a prototype requested by a sponsoring business or organization. This year's results were unveiled recently at the annual Design Day showcase.
McDonald and her center challenged one of these teams to address a public health problem documented in a 2012 study released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. According to the report, 527 heatstroke-related deaths involving children left in cars had been recorded in the United States since 1998, or an average of 38 such deaths annually. The study, conducted by researchers at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, cited the circumstances surrounding these deaths: in 51 percent of the cases, the caregivers had forgotten the children were in the car; in 30 percent of the cases, the children were playing in an unattended vehicle; and in 17 percent of the cases, an adult intentionally left the child in the vehicle. (The remaining 2 percent did not fit within these categories, or the circumstances were unknown.)
The NHTSA report also included testing results of several safety devices already being sold to alert parents that a baby or toddler has been left in the vehicle. The report stated that "the devices were inconsistent and unreliable."
McDonald asked Johns Hopkins mechanical engineering students Jeffrey Kamei, Yejin Kim, and Anshul Mehra to come up with a better way to prevent these deaths. She also encouraged them to produce a passive protection system that would operate without requiring the driver to flip a switch or hook a wristband to the child to activate it.
During brainstorming sessions last fall, the students hit on the idea of adapting the Kinect video game technology. The device uses an infrared camera and projector to sense the movements of a game player and incorporates these motions into what is happening on the video screen. The students thought the same technology could sense even the most subtle movements of a baby sleeping in a rear car seat.
An important advantage of using infrared technology, the students said, was that it cannot penetrate the vehicle's glass windows, so it is unlikely that a movement outside the car, such as a pedestrian or a passing vehicle, could accidentally trigger the motion detector. But inside a car, early tests indicated the sensor should be able to quickly pick up a baby or toddler who is trapped or sleeping inside.
Although the largest hurdle has been cleared, additional work must be done to complete and test the system before it can become a commercial product. First, researchers will either have to license Microsoft's Kinect technology or develop other equipment that works in a similar way. Also on the drawing board are several options for the system to summon help when a trapped child is detected. These could include a loud alarm or an automated call to police or firefighters, or to a car security service such as OnStar.
As they prepared for graduation, the student inventors said they had gained valuable real-world engineering experience while launching a project that could have significant public health value.
When the project opportunities were posted last fall, "this was my first choice," said Mehra, who lives in Baltimore. "Within my culture in India, family is very important. This was a project that could help prevent a big family tragedy."
"At first it was just a cool idea, and then it evolved," said Kamei, who is from Downey, Calif., a suburb of Los Angeles. "I think it definitely has a lot of potential."
"I'm glad we were able to build something that could protect babies," added Kim, a citizen of South Korea who completed her high school studies in Texas.