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Tracking Temperatures From the Inside Out

Organizers of the Netherlands' Four Day Marches are using RFID-enabled sensor pills to monitor the risk of heat sickness, with help from a firm that is developing an application for analyzing athletes' temperature and location in real time.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Aug 01, 2008Each year on July 3, while Americans prepare for Independence Day festivities, tens of thousands of Dutch citizens set out on a four-day hike through the Netherlands as part of an event known as Four Day Marches Nijmegen. Founded in 1909 as a means of keeping members of the Dutch military physically fit, the event now attracts around 45,000 participants, who walk 30 to 50 kilometers (about 19 to 31 miles) daily for four consecutive days. The 2006 event, however, was cut short after unusually high temperatures led to the deaths of two walkers, while many others fell ill.

In the wake of that tragedy, race organizers began seeking a way to remind walkers to remain properly hydrated and avoid overheating during the event. So in 2007, Maria Hopman, a professor heading the integrative physiology research group at Radboud University in Nijmegen, led an experiment in which a subset of walkers volunteered to swallow a pill containing a battery-powered RFID tag and temperature sensor. At checkpoints along the walking route, Dr. Hopman's research team used a handheld RFID reader to receive the 262 kHz signal transmitted by each RFID tag, which provided a reading of a volunteer's body temperature. Medical personnel would then record the person's temperature, as well as other vital signs, and gauge the level of health.

Researchers could view a map depicting marchers as icons that would turn red if the RFID pills measured dangerously high temperatures.

But for this year's race, Hopman and members of her department worked with representatives with Progress Software, a provider of application software designed for a range of business applications, to devise a means of collecting tag data in real time. The goal, she explains, was to be able to provide the medical staff insights into participants' conditions so they could take preventative measures to ensure the volunteers' health throughout the event, rather than waiting until those individuals reached a checkpoint, or reacting once they were already ailing.

Radboud researchers worked with Progress Software to utilize its Apama Event Processing software to create a means of monitoring, in real time, the health of Four Day Marches walkers. The Apama software is based on complex-event processing technology, which takes disparate data streams and analyzes them for a specific, often predictive purpose. (In 2005, Progress purchased the software's developer, a company named Apama, intending to pair the software with RFID-based data collection. See ObjectStore Adding Event-Driven Tools.)

Florida firm HQ Inc. manufactured the ingestible RFID pill and the handheld reader used during the 2007 and 2008 tests. The oval-shaped RFID transponder pill measures roughly 1 centimeter (0.4 inch) in length and half a centimeter (0.2 inch) in width, says Martijn Bakkers, branch manager of health-care at Progress Software's Rotterdam office. Its battery lasts up to three days, Bakkers notes, but the pill passes through most people's digestive tract within one or two days. Once ingested, he adds, the tag has a read range of up to 300 feet, but that range was reduced to 30 centimeters (11.8 inches) for the 2008 tests, because that long range was not required for the project.

At this year's Four Day Marches, 110 participants took part in the RFID project. They each ingested a pill at the beginning of the event, then met every morning with the medical staff, who attempted to read the tag's signal. If no signal was found, a new pill was given to swallow, with the assumption that the previous one had passed.

Progress Software created software that was loaded onto GPS-enabled mobile phones provided by KPN, a Netherlands-based telecommunications provider. Ten of the 110 walkers who took the RFID-enabled pill carried these phones, along with handheld HQ RFID readers, in backpacks throughout the event. Every five seconds, a participant's RFID pill would transmit a signal, and the reader in that person's pack would capture the data encoded to that signal and forward it, via Bluetooth, to the software running on the mobile phone. The phone then relayed the information to the Progress Apama software, which the researchers monitored from a central location.

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