Facemasks have become a ubiquitous symbol of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. And while there is plenty of room to debate their efficacy, there’s far less room for debate about their comfort. Almost all would probably agree that wearing a mask, especially for any length of time or during the performance of exercise, is not a pleasant experience at all.

Scientists have now developed a dynamic respirator mask that automatically changes its pore size in response to changing conditions, such as exercise or air pollution.

AI facemasks: adapting to changing conditions

But will these new AI facemasks be able to respond to an emerging military coup? Who knows!?

The researchers wanted to make a respirator that could automatically adjust its filtration characteristics in response to changing conditions.

The researchers developed a dynamic air filter with micropores that can expand when the filter is stretched, allowing more air to pass through.

A large increase in the breathability of the filter, made of electrospun nanofibers, was achieved at the cost of only about a 6% loss in filtration efficiency.

The team then placed a stretcher around the filter that was connected to a lightweight, portable device containing a sensor, air pump and microcontroller chip. This device communicates wirelessly with an external computer running artificial intelligence (AI) software that monitors and reacts to particulate matter in the air, as well as changes in the wearer’s respiratory patterns during exercise.

Two of the filters were placed on face masks, which were then tested on human volunteers. The stretcher was able to generate a smaller increase in pore size when a volunteer exercised in a polluted atmosphere than when they exercised in clean air.

Most interestingly of all, the AI software allows the respirator to adapt to individuals’ unique respiratory characteristics. The researchers say this could be used to develop personalized facemasks. To make the system smaller, lighter and less cumbersome, the stretcher could also be redesigned to have a pump-free mechanism,.

So-called “smart masks” are being developed by a number of different companies, and boast various different features. For instance, the AirPop Active Plus has sensors that can tell you the quality of the air you breathe. These masks do not, however, change the physical characteristics of the mask to suit conditions.

This new research continues the trend of wearable and implantable tech we’ve been reporting on over the past couple of months. Such technology can be used to monitor the body from the outside-in or even from the inside-out, and promises a future where biological processes are monitored in real-time, with the information being relayed not only to the user, but also to their doctor or potentially other parties.

A week ago we reported that the mRNA technology used in the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines is now being touted as the next step towards mini “biological computers” that can travel around the body monitoring processes and delivering drugs.

A new pioneering neural interface has also been developed by scientists in Korea which can deliver drugs to the brain, without any conscious control or intervention from the user.

Given the length of the pandemic – still with no end in sight – it’s not a wonder companies and researchers are investing in smart tech to improve and further commoditise facemasks. Such investment is just one sign among many that the behavioural and social changes brought about by the virus are likely to remain with us in the long term.

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