Wearable Airbag Designed to Prevent Hip Fractures in the Elderly

An airbag that inflates when an elderly person begins to fall could help them avoid serious injury, while preventing high treatment costs, according to its developers.

Filippo van Hellenberg Hubar is a young man – but wants to prevent falls like this hurting the elderly.

Wearable airbag inventor Filippo van Hellenberg Hubar
Wearable airbag inventor Filippo van Hellenberg Hubar

He’s developed the Wolk airbag with Delft University of Technology researchers.

He says: “Our target group falls, on average, two to three times a year, so the Wolk is actually a re-usable product. When a fall is detected the system activates and the gas capsule releases the gas into the airbag component. After this has happened you can fold the airbag component back in, insert a new inflator, and the whole system is good to go again.”

Experts in human gaits are developing algorithms that predict when a wearer will fall.
These are incorporated in the Wolk prototype, worn on a belt containing three sensors under the wearer’s clothes.

Associate Professor at TU Delft, Heike Vallery says: “We can calculate accelerations and angular velocities of the body – and combined with our models of how humans move we can detect whether there is a fall about to occur or not. Then we have a little microprocessor in here, which processes the information and then inflate the airbags.”
Avoiding ‘false positives’, when falls aren’t happening, is a challenge.

Young actors trained to simulate walking movements of the elderly have been tested wearing the device. Now the Wolk will be tested on pensioners in five nursing homes.

Hip fractures in the elderly, mostly caused by falls, are a huge problem. Age UK’s chief scientist says the technology could have multiple benefits.

“If this device is trialled properly – it’s proof of concept proven (already) – and is taken into the marketplace I think the impact of it could be very high, with a lot of benefits to older people and to health systems. Globally we’re talking about many thousands of falls every day, with huge healthcare costs the world over – and anything that can mitigate those and reduce those will be exceptionally welcome. Not least of all, older people themselves will really welcome this device if it’s going to prevent them suffering the pain and long-term injuries that result from falling over,” Professor James Goodwin, Chief Scientist at Age UK, added.

If trials are successful, the Wolk airbag could be on the market within a year.