KINGSTON — Health agencies recommend wearing a face mask to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 to others. But what if a face mask could be used as much more than a mitigation strategy in the battle against COVID-19?

A team of students at the University of Rhode Island has developed a "smart mask" named RespDetect that can quantitatively monitor COVID-19 symptoms.

Using a respiration sensor in the mask, a throat microphone and an ear temperature sensor, a patient's breathing rate, body temperature and coughing rate can be monitored wirelessly using an app. A health care provider can then use the data to determine the best course of treatment for someone experiencing symptoms of the virus.

The students came up with the idea for the mask in Associate Prof. Kunal Mankodiya's wearable biosensing laboratory in the spring 2020 semester. Mankodiya was the group's primary adviser on the project and Prof. Manbir Sodhi served as a collaborator.

The eight students who worked on the project represented five different majors, with each taking on specific responsibilities.

  • Michaela Bellisle, electrical engineering: hardware development, conceptualization, prototyping;
  • Gözde Çay, electrical engineering: respiration sensing processing, textile sensing;
  • Jake Doherty, mechanical engineering: lead mechanical designer;
  • Vanessa Kamara, biomedical engineering: hardware prototyping, temperature sensing validation, respiration simulator development;
  • Johann Muller, computer engineering: respiration simulator development, mechanical design;
  • Vignesh Ravichandran, electrical engineering: systems design, hardware development, signal processing, edge deep-learning;
  • Shehjar Sadhu, computer science: app development, deep learning, IoT dashboard, network design; and
  • Yashna Sadhu, high school student: user interviews, survey design;

"We tried to bring people together who had an interest in hardware, software, mechanical and textiles to develop different features of the project," said Çay.

Just as the team started working on the project, the university moved to remote learning in mid-March due to COVID-19.

Working apart, the students relied heavily on technology to communicate. Besides using Webex and Zoom to meet once or twice a week, they used an application called Notion to brainstorm and manage their project. A program named Miro served as a collaborative online whiteboard and GitHub was used to develop the application for the mask.

This summer, the students entered the RespDetect mask in a design competition sponsored by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Circuits and Systems Society (IEEE CASS). The contest, which had a COVID-19 theme, attracted entries from students all over the world.

Projects were judged on technical quality, creativity, completion, and relevance to the circuits and systems technology.

On Sept. 7, it was announced that the team from URI captured third place. The first place prize went to a team from France and a team from Sri Lanka won second place.

All three winning teams were invited to present their work at the IEEE International Virtual Symposium on Circuits & Systems on Oct. 10. The event is considered the world’s premiere networking forum for researchers in the fields of theory, design and implementation of circuits and systems.

With the help of Mankodiya and Sodhi, the students are pursuing the possibility of having the sensing and signal processing used on the project patented.

"We hope to come up with an inexpensive licensing model to fund this project sustainably, while also enabling improved access to high quality personal protective equipment for patients and frontline healthcare workers," said Ravichandran.

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