David Zax

A View from David Zax

A Smart Carpet to Detect Intruders

Does your carpet have safety, security, and physical therapy applications?

  • September 7, 2012

These days, just about everything is smart. Researchers at the University of Manchester in the UK even foresee an era when your home is equipped with a smart carpet, reports New Scientist.

It might initially seem like an utterly superfluous development. A smartphone? Yes. A smart thermostat? Okay, why not. But a smart carpet?

Here’s how it works. The carpet’s underlay contains optical fibers strung throughout. When someone steps on the carpet, these optical fibers distort, and sensors at the carpet’s edge send signals to a computer. The computer in turn can analyze the types of pressure applied to the carpet.

But why on earth would you want such a thing? Well, for one thing, consider the homes of the elderly who insist on living independently. A carpet programmed to detect a sudden fall might alert emergency responders were someone old and frail to take a tumble.

Another application could turn your carpet into your physical therapist, in a way. After having the carpet in place over a long period of time, it could learn your walking pattern and begin to detect anomalies–perhaps you have a habit of putting just a tad more weight on one leg than the other, for instance. With enough data (and, presumably, a real live physical therapist to help interpret it), you could begin to predict mobility problems–and hopefully correct them. This idea makes the smart carpet team part of a larger trend of commercializing physical therapeutic technology with the help of sensors in unlikely places (see “Get Smart Shoes”).

There’s one final application, again for once the carpet has familiarized itself with your gait. If it knows you have a certain way of walking, and at 3 AM it suddenly detects an unusual footfall by the living room window, the smart carpet could infer the presence of an intruder, acting as a sort of fibrous alarm system. The system could also detect environmental threats, like chemical spills or fires.

There appears to be no word yet on the cost of the smart carpet, or on plans to commercialize it.

The smart carpet is the brainchild, in part, of Manchester’s Dr. Patricia Scully, whose expertise is in optical sensing, photonic devices, and “polymer optoelectronics,” among other things. According to her faculty page, Dr. Scully has also worked on low-cost, rugged sensors using polymer optical fiber, femtosecond lasers, and measurement techniques for fuel cell systems. 

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