Smart seats get to bottom of in-flight woes

Your airline seat may know more about you than you think if new technology takes off

Future hijackers may find that their buttocks betray them, if UK defence firm Qinetiq has its way. The company has developed a smart chair stashed with "a thicket of seat sensors", according to New Scientist magazine this week. The same seats could also be used to warn cabin staff of illness among the passengers, potentially alleviating the risk of deep vein thrombosis or DVT.

The seat monitors the way the incumbent shifts their weight, producing an indication of whether the occupier is asleep, jumpy or otherwise not conforming to expected normal lower-torso motions. The system's designer, Chris Thorpe, says the system's display could be out of sight to the passengers -- in the crew galley, for example. The seat itself will not make a fundamental assessment of the mental or physical state of its load but will merely point out the discrepancies, leaving it to the cabin staff to work out whether 45B is jumpy because they're scared of flying or because they're planning to take over the plane.

Future additions may include temperature and moisture sensors to increase the accuracy of remote diagnosis of problems, and as part of a drive to make the aircraft's environment react intelligently to the needs of the passenger.

Sensor seats are already in use in the automotive industry, where stress gauges buried in the seat measure the weight of the passenger. A computer can decide whether to deploy an airbag in an accident, helping avoid the situation where children are injured more by the airbag going off than the impact itself. The same technology is also being investigated as part of General Motor's Advanced Automatic Crash Notification system (AACN), due to be rolled out in the US later this year. This contacts a central service by cellular phone immediately a car detects that it's crashed: the seat sensors may be used to add more information about the number and type of occupants.

Similar technology is also predicted to be a major part of domestic health services in the next ten years, with Intel predicting earlier this year that automated monitoring at home -- including motion detection and weight change measuring -- will become an essential part of geriatric care, to relieve the stress on health services coping with an aging population.


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