Smart mask to track respiratory sounds for respiratory disease identification

Wearing face masks has been recognised as one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19, even in its coming endemic phase. Apart from the conventional function of masks, the potential for smart masks to monitor human physiological signals is being increasingly explored. A research team led by the City University of Hong Kong (CityU) recently invented a smart mask, integrating an ultrathin nanocomposite sponge structure-based soundwave sensor, which is capable of detecting respiratory sounds of breathing, coughing and speaking.

Using machine-learning algorithms and a high sensitivity soundwave sensor operable across a wide bandwidth, the smart mask has opened new avenues for its application in the identification of respiratory diseases, as well as a voice interaction tool. This ultra-lightweight wearable technology also has the potential to improve personal and public health by enabling prolonged and systematic respiratory health monitoring in daily life.

A research team led by Professor Li Wenjung, Chair Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering (MNE), Professor Wang Jianping, Professor in the Department of Computer Science (CS), and Dr Yu Xinge, Associate Professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering (BME) at CityU, recently developed this smart mask, which can detect and distinguish multiple respiratory actions. Professor Shen Jiangang’s team from the School of Chinese Medicine of The University of Hong Kong also made an important contribution to the project. The findings were published in Advanced Science under the title “Wide-bandwidth nanocomposite-sensor integrated smart mask for tracking multiphase respiratory activities.”

Importance of wearing masks even if COVID-19 becomes endemic

“Many countries now believe that COVID-19 will soon become endemic,” said Professor Li. “However, we must set aside optimism and be realistic about the likely levels of illness, disability and death associated with this disease in the coming years. It is important to remember that endemicity does not correspond to harmlessness.” He used malaria as an example to illustrate that even though it is currently considered endemic in 87 countries, in 2020, it infected an estimated 241 million people and caused 627,000 deaths, according to the World Health Organization. Thus, he suggested that people should continue to be cautious about COVID-19 and use available and proven measures, including masks, to control the spread of the virus.

“This smart mask utilises our self-developed, high-sensitivity, wide-bandwidth flexible sensor that can detect and record daily human respiratory activity, such as breathing, coughing and speaking for cloud data storage,” explained Professor Li.

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