Scientists have designed a “smart arm” that they say could help reduce the spread of Covid-19 across New Zealand’s borders – and now aim to test it at MIQ facilities. Photo / Provided
Scientists have designed a “smart arm” that they say could help reduce the spread of Covid-19 across New Zealand’s borders – and now aim to test it at MIQ facilities.
The smart wear, created by an Elbaware spin-out from the University of Auckland, aims to tackle an important hygiene issue – touching the face.
“We recognize there have been gaps in public health measures, which the Government has very well publicized, since the start of the pandemic,” said Elbaware founder and surgical scientist Professor John Windsor.
While wearing a mask, washing our hands, keeping our distance and sneezing or coughing up our sleeves are all important steps to stop the spread, Windsor said that touching the face remains a tough problem to solve.
“That’s because it’s almost always an involuntary or accidental act and it happens 15 to 30 times per hour.”
Windsor, an Auckland City Hospital surgeon who also heads the university-based Research Center for Surgery and Translation (STaR), explains that the Sars-CoV-2 virus spreads in two ways.
One of them is inhaling aerosols containing the virus into our lungs; others are heavier droplets that contaminate surfaces and are transferred to the mouth, nose and eyes when we touch them with our hands.
It’s that risk that makes Windsor and her colleagues think of a solution.
“A valuable project needs to fulfill a need and not just be a compelling idea.”
The day before last year’s national lockdown, her team made a prototype of a comfortable, washable “mini sleeve” that is worn on one elbow and under clothing.
Over the next several weeks, they submitted IPs for their inventions, secured funding from donors and the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) and formed Elbaware company.
Key to the design is a programmable sensor that detects elbow flexion and when the hand approaches the face.
“It uses the well-known haptic feedback principle to provide vibration alerts – such as a smartphone or smartwatch – when the hand approaches the face,” he said.
“It makes you aware that you are about to touch your face. Subconscious action becomes conscious.”
“If you want to reduce the risk of touching your face, then this awareness helps you to stop, and not touch your face.”
Tests conducted with the hospital’s junior doctors and supermarket staff have proven promising, he said, with 80 percent of wearers feeling they were touching their faces less.
“These results have encouraged us and provided us with opportunities to further improve the product,” he said.
“We are at a point where we are now ready to work with targeted groups to ensure that products are optimized for various risky settings.”
Further trials are planned at managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) facilities, emergency departments, and at large medical sales and distribution companies.
“In addition, we are looking for funds to conduct trials among the elderly, in orphanages, and with Maori / Pasifika people in their communities,” he said.
“We are also exploring opportunities for airlines and airports as well as other public transport workers, such as bus drivers.”
As for the design itself, the team is building Bluetooth functionality.
“This is not absolutely necessary, but will add real value by enabling remote anonymous data collection, software updates, push messages, and incentives via graphs to show reduced facial touch.”
He said Elbaware initially concentrated on the New Zealand market, then aimed to enter the Australian market when the travel bubble opens.
“We have started discussions about the Asian market and have identified offshore manufacturing,” he said.
“We will work closely with NZ Trade and Enterprise to open up this market and other markets, such as Europe and the US.
“There is significant potential for developing further envelopes with imaging, messaging and modes, including coordination with reusable masks.”
Ultimately, the team hopes their smart sleeves can be seen as additional personal protective equipment – as well as a way to fight other infectious diseases, or even some recurring behavioral disorder.
“We don’t see it replacing important public health measures, but we do see it as a valuable additional measure,” he said.
“This is important as there are continuing concerns about community transmission, particularly as several countries are entering their fourth wave.
“It is imperative that the Government does, and appears to be doing, all it can to reduce the risk of contracting Covid, especially at MIQ and border facilities.”