New Infant SOS Device Designed to Save Children Left in Hot Cars

Rice engineers design car seat accessory to save children left in hot cars

Rice engineers design car seat accessory to help children left in hot cars
Researchers at Rice University have developed Infant SOS, a car seat accessory to protect children left in potentially lethal hot cars.. Rice University/Jeff Fitlow

It's a scenario that most parents and caregivers assume they'll never find themselves in -- leaving a child inside a hot car. But every year we read the headlines when tragedy strikes again and again. On average, 38 children die each year after being left inside a hot car.

Dr. Norman Collins and his family experienced this worst kind of accident when a miscommunication between his son and a fellow churchgoer resulted in his grandson dying in a car in a church parking lot.

“My grief at the loss of my grandson, Bishop, was compounded by the agony of seeing my son and his wife grieving,” says Dr. Collins. In the majority of cases, a child dying inside a hot car is a tragic accident that can be prevented.

Five recent graduates of Rice University decided they wanted to try to help. Their new invention, Infant SOS, protects young children who are accidentally left in a hot car, and alerts caregivers and emergency personnel that help is needed. 

Over the past year, Audrey Clayton, Rachel Wang, Jason Fang, Ralph LaFrance and Ge You, worked at Rice's Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen to develop the tool, which can be fitted into a standard car seat. There are sensors that can detect if a car has stopped moving and whether a child is still in a car seat. After 30 seconds, the device starts to activate both visual and audio alerts which include a flashing row of red LED lights and an alarm.

If after five minutes, the child is still in the seat, Infant SOS will text up to 10 people, including emergency responders.

In addition, the device includes a passive cooling system that works to keep the child's core temperature below the critical point of 104 degrees Fahrenheit.

"The system is designed to do as much as it can to get to as many people as possible," Fang said.

"And hopefully, passersby can see the LED lights and can respond as well."

Work on the project started in 2013. Since the original model, the team worked to improve the alarm system and to include the cooling system, which was designed to work as an emergency backup.

"The benefit of our project is not only the alert system, but also the cooling system," Wang said. "The best way to keep a child alive is to completely remove them from the car seat inside a hot car. However, if the parents do not immediately return to the car, we need to ensure that the baby stays cool until help arrives. The device actually absorbs heat from the environment and the baby and is able to keep the baby cool longer, giving extra time for the parent to return or for someone to notice the flashing lights and see that a baby is trapped in the car."

The idea for the device came from Dr. Susan Baldwin, a 1982 graduate of Rice. A child of one of her  patients nearly died in an overheated car, so she proposed the project and funded it through her company, Mamoru Enterprises LLC.

Clayton said it’s no surprise that most of the tragic incidents involving children left in cars occur in the summer months.

"It works out to about a child every two to three days, which is a shocking statistic," she said. "Our hope is that our device can prevent this from happening."

Work will continue on Infant SOS with new students over the next year. The hope is that the alert system can be streamlined and the device itself easier to use. Eventually the team hopes that it will be sold to a large market for about $150.

"The reason I chose engineering in the first place is to be able to make a difference and be able to build a product that would be able to help people," Wang said. "I really appreciate the opportunity of being able to work on something that could potentially save infant lives in the future."

Continue Reading