Plessey Semiconductors’ EPIC sensor, a licensed technology invented at the University of Sussex, is being trialled for use in car seats as a mechanism to prevent drivers from falling asleep at the wheel. The miniaturised electrocardiogram (ECG) sensor system, which can be used to measure tiny changes in electric potential at a distance, is embedded within the fabric of the seat and detects fluctuations in the driver’s heart rate consistent with fatigue.

It is hoped that in the future, the sensors will be used to send a signal to drivers when they are showing signs of drowsiness, automatically switch on a cruise control or lane keeping technology, or send information via a wireless network for a control centre to take action. It may even be possible to steer the vehicle to a safe standstill should the driver suffer a heart attack at the wheel, and contact emergency services.

Driver fatigue is a contributory factor in one in five motorway accidents, according to a study by the Department for Transport. The trial, which is being conducted by researchers at Nottingham Trent University, will seek to prove the consistency and reliability of the data read by the sensors.

The study has received over £88,000 of funding from the Technology Strategy Board, as part of its investment in the development of internet-enabled sensors communicating with other machines and appliances through an information network, commonly referred to as the Internet of Things. Should the trial be successful, the intention is for the product to be rolled out first in commercial goods vehicles as a truck drivers’ aid, before being implemented in consumer road cars.

Electric Potential sensors, which are capable of detecting and measuring tiny changes in spatial potential, electric field or charge, were created by Robert Prance, Professor of Sensor Technology, and his team at the University. In early 2012, Plessey Semiconductors acquired a full license to miniaturise, manufacture and sell the technology, as well as to further develop it in the future.

Plessey have since developed the EPIC sensor for a number of commercial applications, including an easy to use, lightweight electrocardiogram monitor for use in home healthcare and sports fitness, and in contactless gesture recognition technology compatible with computer monitors, laptops and tablets.

Electric Potential Sensors (EPS) are wideband, ultra-high impedance sensors capable of detecting spatial potential, electric field or charge.