WMU senior engineering students solve problems facing business, industry and people

Contact: Joy Brown

Someone wears a "biomedical wearable for narcolepsy" on their wrist.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Studies pertaining to innovative exterior residential lighting design, herb garden monitoring, helmet-to-helmet impact reduction, therapeutic virtual reality, moonwalking and much more were showcased in live online presentations by senior engineering students at Western Michigan University's 66th Conference on Senior Engineering and Design.

Students had intended to present their research in person at this annual spring conference, but with the COVID-19 pandemic forcing the cancelation of large group events, students presented their work online instead Tuesday, April 14.

About 300 students presented nearly 100 projects they have completed to solve problems facing business and industry. A list of all the projects, many of which are sponsored by southwest Michigan companies, is available at wmich.edu/engineer/news/seniors.

The conference is traditionally held twice each year at the college, in April and December, to showcase the work of graduating seniors who are required to complete a real-world capstone project. The capstone design course is an important component of the senior year and is a customary part of many engineering programs.

There are a variety of disciplines involved, including chemical and paper engineering; civil construction engineering; computer science; electrical and computer engineering; engineering design, manufacturing and management systems; industrial and entrepreneurial engineering and engineering management; and mechanical and aerospace engineering.

For their senior engineering design project, two mechanical engineering students used online collaboration to develop a device to combat a debilitating sleep disorder.

A "biomedical wearable for narcolepsy" wristband

Chandler McFalls' and Jacqueline Barreto's "biomedical wearable for narcolepsy" is a wristband embedded with "smart" sensors that can detect when someone is about to fall asleep. Using equipment that measures biometrics such as heart rate and physical movement, the device is capable of an array of alerts that bring the wearer back to full consciousness.

Narcolepsy is a chronic sleep disorder that affects an estimated 1 in 2,000 people in the United States, according to the Narcolepsy Network. Those with the disorder often find it difficult to stay awake for long periods of time, regardless of the circumstances, the Mayo Clinic explains. The disruptions can be life-threatening. Medications and lifestyle changes can help mitigate effects of the condition, but there is no cure.

McFalls says the device idea was inspired by friends and family members of his who are narcolepsy sufferers.

"My uncle and cousin have it. My girlfriend's mom has it as well," says McFalls, a Muskegon, Mich. native. "Growing up, it's (narcolepsy) always been very impactful on their lives. Lots of people struggle with the side effects of narcolepsy medication, so going to a non-chemical option would be ideal."

If the project proves to be useful and practical, McFalls' and Barreto's device would be one of the few wearable electronics made to predict the onset of a narcoleptic event, according to Dr. Peter Gustafson, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, who, along with others in the college, has been advising McFalls and Barreto with their project.

"We're definitely looking into patenting terminology to bring it to market, and talking to biomedical companies" for manufacturing, McFalls says. "This is definitely a project I want to keep working on," despite experience with far different work: aviation design.

Neither McFalls nor Barreto have biomedical backgrounds; the two will each earn mechanical engineering degrees when they graduate. This, coupled with the emerging nature of their work, means they've delved into plenty of theoretical and applied research to create what they hope will be a useful and impactful product. They read several medical journal articles, spoke with physicians, accessed the latest mechanical engineering literature pertaining to aspects of their project (such as biomedical sensoring and wearable design techniques) and developed multiple prototypes as they improved upon their design.

McFalls says some afflicted with narcolepsy were recruited to test the device along the way. Their feedback about comfort and functionality was used to refine the project.

The original prototype relied upon an electrocardiogram for biometric readings, but it proved to be too bulky and restrictive for physical comfort, McFalls says. So, the team switched to a photoplethysmogram, or PPG, which uses infrared light to penetrate the skin for blood volume change detection. Other components used include a photodiode, multiple LED lights at different wavelengths to change light intensity and penetration, and an accelerometer that measures acceleration.

McFalls led the product's design, while Barreto has been responsible for the necessary computer coding that requires complicated data analysis.

The coronavirus outbreak made it a little more difficult to work on the project, but the pair hopes to have a fully operational prototype up and working.

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