A new three-year project from the University of Bristol is set to investigate if Wi-Fi radio waves can be reused as a medical radar system.


The research is part of a new £1.5 million grant awarded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), Toshiba and Decawave. The Opera project involves the universities of Bristol and Oxford, alongside University College London and Coventry University.

Starting this year in October, Opera acts as extension of the Sphere Sensor Platform for Healthcare in a Residential Environment) project, which is developing sensors for home use to spot health and wellbeing projects.

Through the development of sensors for health monitoring, the Sphere project hopes to aid the early diagnosis of health and wellbeing problems, as well promoting lifestyle change and the ability of patients to live at home.

The Opera project will attempt to build a complementary sensing platform by reusing technologies that already exist in most households. Built around passive sensing technology, the Opera system will be a receiver-only radar network that can detect the reflections of ambient radio-frequency signals from people. Household technologies such as Wi-Fi access points and wireless devices transmit what the researchers call ‘Illumination Signals’.

Both the Opera and Sphere projects are tackling the ways in which long-term physical activity and behaviour affects chronic health conditions such as diabetes, dementia and depression. By monitoring long-term physical activity, as well as behaviour monitoring at home, the researchers hope to gain an understanding of peoples’ lifestyles and behaviours and how they play in the development of long-term conditions.

Speaking about the project, principle investigator, Dr Robert Piechocki, said:

“A great deal of scientific and engineering ingenuity around the world goes into the creation of bespoke sensing systems. There is certainly a place for such systems. However, we are already and increasingly surrounded by radio waves originally intended only to deliver entertainment and information. But what if we could find another purpose for such radio systems? We hope to show that passive opportunistic sensing is a viable option."

Professor Ian Craddock, head of the Digital Health Engineering Research Group and director of Sphere-IRC added:

"The Opera team have set out an exciting vision of the future that connects back to the very origins of radar in the 1930s. The team will explore this potential in ways never envisaged by these pioneers, but which hold great promise to transform future healthcare."