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UC device to detect drowsiness may save lives

World first of its kind UC device to detect drowsiness may save lives

August 30, 2012

University of Canterbury (UC) is developing a device with the New Zealand Brain Research Institute to detect drowsiness or lapses that could be fatal for truck drivers, pilots, and air traffic controllers.

Electrical engineering PhD Student Simon Knopp is developing a world first of its kind prototype head-mounted device to study drowsiness at the NZ Brain Research Institute (NZBRI) in Christchurch.

Under the supervision of Professors Richard Jones and Phil Bones, Knopp is researching to detect drowsiness and lapses in real-time.

``Lapses can have serious consequences. Truck drivers, pilots, and air traffic controllers, for instance, have to stay alert for long periods of time and risk causing fatalities if they don't,’’ Knopp said today.

``It's not just transport that is affected but some process control workers and health professionals have to maintain attention on long monotonous tasks too.

``Lapses are when your performance on a task drops completely for between 0.5 and 15 seconds. They vary from micro-sleeps, where you essentially fall asleep for a moment, to sustained-attention lapses which can happen even when you're not drowsy, to diverted-attention lapses. This is where you just get distracted from the task at hand. Most people have these lapses and often aren't aware they're having them.’’

Knopp’s work is in developing a device to detect such lapses and alert a person before they have an accident. He said it could be difficult to reliably tell the difference between blinks and drowsy eye closure.

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He is using multiple sensors to build up a thorough picture of the person's state. He is using a miniature camera to look at their eyes, and sensors to measure brain activity and head movement.

By combining all of the data together he is getting a better idea of whether someone is having a lapse and whether they're feeling drowsy.

``Some car manufacturers are introducing systems that attempt to monitor driver drowsiness. By using data from multiple sensors, though, our device should be able to respond more quickly and more accurately than something that just uses a camera on a car's dashboard.

``We hope that one day this device will become a standard piece of safety equipment to help prevent lapse-related accidents on the job.’’

He said a US study that put measurement instruments in 100 cars found that 20 percent of single vehicle accidents were drowsiness-related.

Scientists have come to the consensus that sleepiness is the largest preventable cause of accidents, surpassing that of alcohol or drug related accidents in all forms of transport, he said.

An Australian study of short-haul day-shift drivers found that 45 percent of drivers reported "nodding off" while driving in the previous 12 months.


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