At Northeastern University’s College of Engineering, Yingzi Lin and the Intelligent Human-Machine Systems Lab are developing a flexible nano skin, a film that allows a super-thin transducer layer to come between people and machines to
monitor the operator’s state without the distractions that come
from being wired to sensors.
The plan for the nano skin is to fill it with sensors to measure a
range of conditions, including heart rate, sweat rate, even blood
The current goal is to remove the hard wiring of sensors to subjects in automobile driving simulators so that study can be more
efficient and less obtrusive.
“We recognized the need for a natural sensor that would just
exist between the subject and the machine—one a subject could
simply grip to automatically connect with our system," Lin said.
“We investigated all the existing sensors and then looked at nano
technologies, and realized we would have to create something.”
So far the project, funded by the National Science Foundation,
A former graduate student, Hongjie Leng, worked on the sensor
before he returned to Beijing with his doctorate to start his own
Another graduate student has been working with Lin on a sensor to measure heart rate. Other sensors are being considered.
The plan is to incorporate a series of sensors in the one nano skin.
A single device with an array of sensors would make the experience of test driving simpler for the subject, and would make the
changing of subjects faster and easier.
Lin’s focus to date has been on automotive applications. She
also sees potential for studying a variety of human-machine
systems and applications using the resulting nano skin transducer
systems, such as the human-robot interface, particularly in tele-control, as machines move farther from their human operators. ME
ELLIOT LUBER is an independent writer based in Seaford, N. Y.
THE LAB Intelligent Human-Machine Systems Lab, Northeastern Univer-
sity College of Engineering, Boston. Yingzi Lin, laboratory director.
OBJECTIVE Designing intelligent systems that assist and interact with
human operators in more natural, friendly, and efficient ways.
DEVELOPMENT A nano-scale monitoring network able to monitor physical
processes from the subject’s grip on an automotive steering wheel.
MONITORING, UP CLOSE
Yingzi Lin has developed an
unobtrusive sensor at the Intelligent
Human-Machine Systems Lab.
Photo: Northeastern University
dissipates as heat. We wondered: ‘What if
we could use that physical motion to power
pacemakers and other medical devices?’ ”
said Dagdeviren, who is now a post-doctoral researcher at the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology.
The answer was a 500-nanometer-thin
slice of ceramic piezoelectric material
atop a larger plastic sheet (itself only the
thickness of a human hair). Piezoelectric
materials convert physical energy directly
to electrical energy.
The material generates 0.3 microwatt
per square centimeter. But it can be
applied in four layers, which can gener-
ate a total of 1. 2 microwatts per square
centimeter, enough to power pacemakers
and other devices.
A device made from that material may
be several years out from possible FDA
approval. Before that occurs, the material
will have to prove to be flexible enough to
conform to the heart’s shape, thin enough
to stack like capacitors, safe enough not
to put a strain on the patient, and strong
enough not to break after millions or billions of heartbeats.
“If you think of a block of aluminum, it’s
not going to be easy to bend that, but if
you take a thin slice of aluminum such as
a sheet of aluminum wrap, it’s extremely
flexible. It’s the same idea here,” Dagde-
viren said. “If you take a nano slice off a
piece of ceramic material, it’s going to have
a very low flexibility index and it’s proving
not to be brittle, as you might expect of
To check the practicality of a device
made from the material, Dagdeviren and
her team tested devices in the hearts of
live pigs, sheep, and cows. This included
both open- and closed-chest testing, which
can have a large impact on the pressure
exerted on the device.
Since Dagdeviren’s graduation, her
advisor, John Rogers, has researched the
transducer’s ability to monitor the flow
of blood as a means to determine blood
pressure. A similar thin skin-mounted
transducer could power wearable health