Francesco Fioranelli

by Merel Engelsman

Having originally graduated in telecom engineering, rising star Francesco Fioranelli has been fascinated by radar ever since his PhD on through-wall radar imaging. ‘I like that radar allows you to perceive the environment beyond your senses as a human being – to track the location and speed of objects, at great or small distances, without touching them,’ he says. As a tenure track assistant professor in the Microwave Sensing, Signals and Systems group, he not only advances the use of radar for autonomous vehicles, but also for medical purposes. Francesco: ‘If the objects you track are not trees or cyclists but human body parts, then that’s where the medical relevance of radar comes in.’

If the objects you measure with radar are not trees or cyclists but human body parts, then that is where the medical relevance or radar comes in.

Raising the alarm and more
The initial use of radar for medical purposes was for it to be installed in a home and serve as an alternative for the push-button alarm – to raise an alarm when an elderly person has fallen and is not able to get up again. But Francesco and his team want to take it much further. Great progress in electronics over the past years has drastically reduced the cost, power-consumption and, most importantly, the size of radars. ‘Radars can now easily be embedded in the everyday environment such as a home, an armchair or even a phone,’ he says. ‘This opens up a lot of opportunities.’ 

Radar is not the answer to everything, but I am convinced its medical application will have a positive impact in the real world.

Home is where the heart is
Radar measurements of the speed of an object have such a high resolution, that it is possible to observe chest motion due to breathing. It is even possible to image the tiny motions caused by the heartbeat, although this has so far mainly been shown in controlled settings where a person is mostly lying still. Francesco: ‘Radar may not be as accurate as wearing a heart-rate monitor, but it may be a much less invasive and cheaper sensor for monitoring your vital signs. The idea is to implement this inside your home environment, raising an alarm before you are so unwell that you need highly specialized care.’

Monitoring your activity level
In another project, Francesco is looking into the use of radar to monitor a person’s gait. ‘Research shows that your walking speed and step size are strong indicators of your health in general.’ Again, these characteristics can be measured in a dedicated biomechanical lab, using highly specialized equipment, but why not measure these in the comfort of someone’s own home? Using radar, it may for example be possible to notice that someone’s activity level dropped from two thousand steps per day to less than a thousand, signalling something to be going on. In a third project, he is looking into activity monitoring in general. ‘Perhaps there are areas of the house, such as the kitchen, that you no longer spent any time in. Such changes in your behaviour could be signs of problems with your cognition.’

Compared to wearing a heart-rate monitor, radar may provide a much less invasive and cheaper sensor for monitoring your vital signs.

NWO Klein
Although Francesco only arrived in Delft in November 2019, he has already been awarded an NWO Klein research grant in relation to his work on medical applications of radar. He is clear about radar not being the answer to everything, but also convinced that his research can make a positive impact in the real world. For this reason, he is already thinking about a mechanism to bridge the gap between fundamental research and an actual product. Francesco: ‘I expect it will take a number of years before we will see medical radar applications making their way into our homes.’

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