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Engineering a super sneaker

DU engineers have developed a shoe sensor to monitor balance and gait. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

Ian Welch never planned to get into biomechanics, and he certainly never expected to go into business.

It’s funny how things work out.

With Associate Professor Corinne Lengsfeld and Dean Rahmat Shoureshi of DU’s School of Engineering and Computer Science, the recent graduate helped develop a new product, and DU is applying for a federal patent and may start up a new company to market the invention.

The invention is a solution to a problem doctors had with their elderly patients falling due to surgery, medication or frailty. Welch’s idea: using shoe-mounted sensors to monitor weight distribution and gait.

The sensors — mounted on a paper-thin pad inside shoes — gather data from the wearer and provide feedback to researchers via radio waves. Ideally, wearers won’t even be aware the device is in the shoe. Radio transmitters, computer memory and other electronics are hidden inside the sole.

Doctors could use the data transmitted back to help patients understand balance and gait, and avoid falls.

Eventually, the sensors could transmit data to a real-time warning system that would alert a patient if he or she was losing balance or about to fall, Shoureshi says. The device could help some patients learn to walk all over again.

Other applications for the shoe sensors include helping doctors monitor diabetics who suffer circulatory problems in their feet. A system could warn of fluid buildup even before ulcerations that plague some diabetics can form. Shoureshi has even more ideas about alternative, perpetual power sources for the sensors that would eliminate the need for batteries.

Welch says the sensors have unlimited potential, including athletic training.

The sensor idea started as an undergraduate project for Welch (BSCPE ’05, MS electrical engineering ’07) and other students under Lengsfeld’s supervision. But when Welch graduated, he wasn’t ready to give up his research on the sensors. Instead, he offered to work on the design for free at DU over the summer.

Lengsfeld saw that Welch was on to something and offered him a full-time research job if he would stay on and get his master’s degree. He stuck around.

Now that Welch has graduated, he’s working with DU to found a private company — with close ties to the University — to develop applications for commercial use.

“I always knew I wanted to be an engineer,” Welch says. “I was always taking things apart and putting them together. But I never knew I wanted to be a bio-engineer. This is something new for me. I’m very lucky. I’ve been given a great opportunity.”

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