Smaller, smarter devices on show at imec’s FutureSummits


Flanders’ digital research centre presents prototypes for a wearable foetal heart monitor, a radar motion tracker, and much more

Tracking the future

A microchip that that can monitor an unborn baby’s heartbeat and a radar system that can tell when a driver is about to fall asleep at the wheel are two of the advanced technologies on show at FutureSummits in Antwerp. Both point to ways in which smaller and smarter devices will change the way we live in the future.

FutureSummits, a two-day conference organised by nanotechnology research centre imec, launches today in Antwerp. It hosts inspiring international speakers and an exhibition of 55 new technologies developed by imec.

The Technology Forum on 14 May is followed by two options on 15 May: Forward Dive, which explores the profound social changes promised by new technologies, and AI Flanders, looking at the impact that artificial intelligence will have on business.

On the pulse

Chips that can monitor the foetal heart have been developed before, but they either consume too much energy to be of practical use or are incapable of tracking the right parameters. The imec system, developed in collaboration with spin-off company Bloomlife, continuously and accurately monitors foetal heart rate and mobility, two important indicators of a baby’s wellbeing.

The chip is sufficiently energy-efficient to run for a week on an ordinary coin cell battery, and so can be worked into a wearable system. This might be used to follow foetal heart health from as early as week 20 in a pregnancy.

According to Eric Dy, co-founder and chief executive of Bloomlife, the next step is to put the system through a clinical trial. “Ultimately we plan to launch not only a consumer product – consisting of a sensor device integrated in a wearable patch and a smartphone application – but also a risk-management platform that can be used by medically qualified staff.”

Radar recognition

Another technology on show is a compact, highly-sensitive radar system that can accurately detect small movements at a distance of up to 10 metres. This might allow machines to be controlled by gestures, or robots to detect changes in facial expression. This in turn might lead to car safety systems able to detect when a driver is falling asleep or having a heart attack.

Radar has several advantages over visual movement detection systems in this kind of application, imec says. On the one hand it can work in low light conditions, while on the other it cannot (yet) be used to recognise facial identity, hence protecting privacy.

Photo courtesy Bloomlife