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How the "brain" of an F1 car is being adapted for use in children's hospitals

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How the "brain" of an F1 car is being adapted for use in children's hospitals
Aug 20, 2012, 9:06 AM

There was an interesting story in yesterday's Mail on Sunday about an innovative new use in the medical world for the F1 electronic control unit, t...

There was an interesting story in yesterday's Mail on Sunday about an innovative new use in the medical world for the F1 electronic control unit, the "brain" of an F1 car.

As a result of a chance conversation between a McLaren engineer and a paediatrician, Birmingham Children's Hospital has been trialling the ECU in a children's intensive care ward; the idea is that the F1-derived unit can measure all the key signs from the child, sense trends and detect developing problems earlier than the electronics previously used by the NHS.

The unit normally measures oil pressures, brake temperatures and the like.

Here, a lightly adapted version of the F1 ECU is being used to measure things like heart rate, oxygen levels and blood pressure in an ill child. And, inevitably, it is far more capable than the units currently used in hospitals; it can take a heart cardiogram 125 times a minute, instead of once an hour, for example.

This allows doctors to pick up signs of deterioration in a child's condition much earlier and it detects subtle shifts, which the current system would not register. This is what F1 has arrived at through the desire to know as much as possible in real time about what is happening on the race car.

There are over 120 sensors on an F1 car, recording over 500 parameters which are transmitted live via telemetry, back to the pits and also to the teams' factories in the UK and Europe. The ECU manages the data and the control systems and is a standardised unit used by all the F1 teams. In the four years since McLaren Electronic Systems started as ECU supplier, no car has retired from a race due to ECU failure, which gives a level of confidence for medical staff, no doubt.

The MoS spoke to Dr Heather Duncan, a consultant paediatrician at BCH, who described the trial as "a transformational breakthrough"; she is hoping to find more funding to continue the trial and encourage other childrens' ICUs to trial the system.

"Formula 1 engineers do lots of real-time monitoring during races and look at performance and modelling to see when they should change tyres and have pit stops," she said. "They’re predicting, essentially, which we don’t tend to do in healthcare.

"Although we can always see what is happening at the bedside, we can’t see trends over time. This software lets us do this – and it could improve a child’s chances of survival.

"At the moment it’s intuitive for a racing engineer but less so for clinicians. For example, breathing rate kept coming up as “revs per minute”. So there’s some tweaking to do."

It's easy to be cynical about stories like this, but the application of F1 technology to other areas of life is such an important bi-product of the drive for innovation, which makes F1 what it is.

As the team bosses fight each other over how to control costs and what F1 should be all about, they could do with taking account of stories like this one.

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Series Formula 1
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