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Imagine a technology that can see through walls and other obstacles to pick up on the smallest human movements, such as breathing or heartbeats from more than 15 meters away. A technology that can not only see how many people are in a room through its walls but can also determine their health, stress level, and ability to focus from range.

This technology now exists, and whether you read that with curiosity, concern or thought of opportunity, it appears to be a new disruptive technology for occupancy analytics in and around the built environment.

The 8GHz UWB radar was developed by a team at the imec R&D innovation hub in Eindhoven, Netherlands. Designed as an efficient, low-cost solution for presence detection in smart building solutions, it consumes below 1mW of power, 100 times lower than alternative solutions. Just like a camera, the radar can develop a vision of its environment, where the camera excels at creating 2D images, the radar excels at detecting movement and distance. It can also see through walls.

The new transceiver is compliant with FCC and ETSI spectral regulations for the UWB frequency range, limiting the radiation to -41dBm/MHz. “This energy density is well below the noise floor of mainstream commercial systems, and therefore, this radar can safely be used for 24/7 people presence detection without health concerns. The power consumption of the transceiver IC is less than 1mW, 100 times less than comparable state-of-the-art solutions.”

Current commercial radars use much more power and often require more expensive semiconductor technologies, accroding to imec, making them unsuitable for low-cost and battery-powered operation. Another advantage is their robustness to suboptimal light conditions. Different from a camera, radar can accurately detect micro-movements as small as respiration or a heartbeat in relative darkness. However, imec’s new transceiver has been specifically designed with these requirements in mind, making it a significant breakthrough for presence detection applications.

“This performance makes it a breakthrough solution for low-cost battery-powered presence detection and people counting applications in offices, hospitals and on industrial sites. In many circumstances, radar sensors are better suited than cameras for presence detection, people tracking or activity classification. That is, for example, the case when privacy considerations are key, such as in hospitals, office spaces, or hotel rooms,” says an Imec statement.

Radar is, in a sense, more private than a camera due to the footage it produces but monitored subjects have some awareness of the camera’s presence and where it can see them. Furthermore, those being monitored may be choosing to hide stress or other emotions in their appearance for entirely valid, safe, and legal reasons. The fact that this new radar technology can potentially identify activities of occupants in private spaces and determine hidden emotions through breathing and heart rate, could raising concerns.

Radar is a powerful technology and its use will need to be managed, where possible. Automotive applications, where radar can be used to determine if someone is in the right state to drive, may impinge on privacy but could save lives, for example. While, remote monitoring of vital signs in healthcare settings may give patients more freedom and comfort, supporting the healing process while maintaining safety.

In retail, we have already seen the development of biometric shopping cart handles that can collect a range of information on shoppers as the navigate the store. In addition, many commercial spaces are already equipped with cameras that can garner that information visually, thermally, and if not cameras then what’s to stop stores deploying people to gather information?

The most influential difference between this new radar technology and cameras or other surveillance systems might not be the fact that it can see through walls, nor the type of information it collects, but the low cost. Such wide-range, pervasive, revealing technology could be applied in every urban environment, providing unprecedented ability to monitor people. The growing power of AI will be able to squeeze more and more insight from the radar data and all without a device in sight.

The impact of ubiquitous vision on occupany analytics for buildings is huge, which could lead to a range of health, productivity, and space utilization benefits. Occupany tracking is fast becoming central to everything in the smart building. A 2018 Memoori report estimates that the occupancy analytics market in Commercial Office space will rise to $4.6 Billion by 2022, at a robust CAGR of 24.5%. How a new low-cost radar monitoring system will change that market, and whether privacy concerns will impact that change, is going to be a topic of continuing discussion.

“Together with our novel sensor fusion algorithms, our offering opens up completely new opportunities for remote sensing in various fields such as automotive, smart buildings and human-machine interaction,” says Barend van Liempd, program manager at imec. “We invite interested companies, chip designers and application developers, for licensing of this technology or participation in the imec R&D programs.”