Bus crash tragedies are an all-too-common part of the Australian news cycle. An Australian-engineered, Bluetooth-enabled seatbelt safety system aims to reduce — and even eliminate — such fatalities.
Having played a key role in the development of the digital hearing aid, anti-fraud magnetic media authentication, and mobile magnetic stripe card readers, Professor Robert Morley could be forgiven for thinking his move to Australia from the USA would provide time to relax and smell the roses.
But he didn’t count on meeting former hospitality executive Andrew Leary, who had acquired the patent to a potentially life-saving piece of technology and needed technical help to bring it to market.
Leary cites being introduced to Morley as one of the key milestones in the Bucklemeup story, which has so far consumed around 10 years of his life.
Bucklemeup is a Bluetooth-enabled, passenger seatbelt safety system for vehicles that was conceived by a group of first responders who had witnessed people being killed or injured in vehicle accidents due to unbuckled seatbelts.
Each seat is fitted with a wireless seatbelt sensor, so when a seatbelt is unlatched or forgotten, a notification is displayed on a dash-mounted console or mobile application to alert the driver.
“When I came aboard, Andrew had already spent quite a bit of money to develop prototypes,” Morley told create. “I’d go with him to the meetings with engineers and keep them on their toes.
“What had been developed up to that point was close to marketable but not quite. It is one thing to build one of something, but when you go to build a thousand, it’s a totally different ball game.”
Teamwork and testing
Morley’s research interests, which include computer engineering, low power VLSI design, computer architecture, signal processing and microprocessor systems design, aligned perfectly with what Leary needed to move Bucklemeup from concept to production.
“I took Andrew under my wing and became an interpreter to the engineers he had working on the project,” he said. “We needed Bucklemeup to work for different size seatbelts and it didn’t when I became involved.
“Fortunately, I was able to tap into the expertise of one of the brightest students I ever had who works in magnetics. Through his simulations, we were able to improve the magnetic circuit so we now can detect even with very thick seatbelt units.”
They then found an engineering company that could develop a product rather than a prototype.
“We got serious about the nitty-gritty details of the design, the plastics and the secret sauce of this product — a reed switch controlled by magnetic fields,” Morley said.
“In the new product we have two magnets in the plastic case and when the tongue comes into the seatbelt, the magnetic field from those magnets gets coupled to that switch and closes the switch to detect that the seatbelt is in.”
Many hours of testing and engineering were required to perfect the unique sensor design to ensure reliable operation with minimal battery consumption.
The sensors continuously monitor and communicate the status of each passenger seat back to the driver in real-time via a dash mounted console. When a passenger has not latched their seatbelt, the driver receives visual and auditory alerts via the dashboard console and can remind the passenger to buckle up.
Duty of care
Leary explained that one of the key challenges with ensuring passengers are properly restrained in buses is that bus drivers cannot see what is happening in the seats behind them.
“The driver’s primary duty of care is to keep their eyes on the road. Bucklemeup sits on the dashboard and in the driver’s view. It will tell if seatbelts are unbuckled and set off an alert if they’re not,” he said.
“Many highly regulated industries, such as the mining sector, require their vehicles and any vehicle entering their sites to have seatbelts fitted with a monitoring system, to ensure seatbelt use compliance.
“The challenge for us was to develop a robust and reliable seatbelt monitoring system that can be easily retrofitted to existing vehicles with up to sixty-five seats, without the need for significant vehicle modifications or new seatbelts and wiring.”
Rival systems can cost up to $25,000 and require hardwiring, meaning the vehicle can be off the road for up to two weeks, whereas Bucklemeup costs around $9000 for the same bus and takes just over an hour to install, Leary said.
The key to this rapid installation process is the fact the Bucklemeup cartridge is fixed to the existing bus seatbelt unit using double-sided tape, with the magnetic field from the magnets inside the plastic housing and the reed switch interacting with the tongue when it is inserted.
As a result, it can be easily fitted to most passenger vehicles, allowing older vehicles to become compliant with industry regulations in a matter of minutes.
“It’s elegant in its simplicity,” Morley said. “I used to teach electrical engineering design class to the seniors. I’d tell them, ‘If you finish a project and you have time to add something, add simplicity. Take some parts away and make it still work.’
“To my knowledge, we’re the only wireless device like this in the world. There are wired solutions but they’re not a very ‘clean’ solution because you have to wire-up the bus, put sensors at every seat and then wire it all together.”