University of Canberra: UC’s Human Centred Technology Research Centre and Robotics researchers team up with Canberra company to help better assess falls risk in the elderly

University of Canberra Human Centred Technology (HCT) Research Centre and Robotics researchers are working with Canberra start-up Balance Mat on new technology that will make assessing falls risk in the elderly more accurate, accessible, portable and affordable – potentially changing the way such assessments are conducted globally.

The Balance Mat itself responds to movement and measures balance by assessing postural sway, which is in turn used to gauge the risk for falls in older people.

Lecturer and HCT Research Centre member Dr Maryam Ghahramani, and Associate Professor in Robotics and Art Dr Damith Herath from the Faculty of Science and Technology have teamed up to help calibrate the consistency of the tech’s responses, to ensure better accuracy.

Dr Ghahramani has extensive research experience in balance and gait analysis and falls prevention in older people. She is running tests to see how the Balance Mat measures the balance of subjects, both human and robotic, and is also analysing and reconciling the data from external sensors and the mat to ensure consistency.

“Gauging someone’s postural sway – and therefore how at risk they are of having a fall – is usually done visually by doctors,” she said.

“This is very subjective, and therefore not a good measure – it isn’t precise, and can’t be used to tell if someone’s balance is deteriorating or improving over time.”

Dr Ghahramani added that while there are devices that can be used to measure postural sway, they all come with significant limitations.

“Some are very expensive, or they only collect data and then that has to be analysed separately offline,” she said.

“If individual sensors are used, they have to be placed very precisely, and there is a tendency for the results to be disrupted by ‘noise’ external to the test, such as breathing.

“The Balance Mat is the first technology I’ve seen that addresses these limitations, being small, light and therefore portable and just a fraction of the price of the others.”

Data from sensors in the Balance Mat are run to a computer interface, which records and analyses it – there is no need for separate analysis. There is also the option to run the system to analyse the data without recording them, if they choose.

Testing the Balance Mat with a robotics rig has demonstrated that the technology is working very well in terms of repeatability, Dr Ghahramani says.

Balance Mat’s Managing Director Ian Bergman first developed the technology, which senses physical impact, for use in the security sector.

“After recognising its potential in the medical and health sectors, we then pivoted its use to answer the very real need for a commercial device that could help determine falls risk in the aged care sector – falls pose a major problem for the elderly, and can really determine quality of life,” he said.

The Balance Mat has been in development for six years, with signal processing from the sensors posing the main challenge for its creators – until this industry collaboration addressed that.

“I met David Hinwood, a PhD student from the Faculty of Science and Technology, at an exhibition, and we got to talking about testing the mat with UC’s robots – I then met Damith, and he was so welcoming and enthusiastic about Balance Mat, that I knew for sure I wanted to work with this team,” said Mr Bergman. “It’s been a really successful collaboration, and is looking to be a long-term one.”

In the future, the Balance Mat team is looking to add more tests to its common balance assessments.

“The scope of possibility for its uses is also very wide – we are looking at how it can be applied to help people with Parkinson’s disease or diabetes, or stroke patients, to name a few,” said Mr Bergman.