Still from Fluid Interfaces video about the DermalAbyss project, in which traditional tattoo inks are replaced with biosensors.

APEX Insight: There are exciting developments in hydration monitoring for airline passengers, but some obstacles remain.

Biometric measurement has become easier and less expensive, and this area of technology has room for growth in the air travel industry. Newer sensors go beyond heart rate, helping us measure biochemistry such as hydration, which is important in the dry environs of the airline cabin.

Research into real-time hydration measurement has yielded encouraging results, such as a monitoring system whose sensor would only cost a dollar to manufacture. Meanwhile, researchers at MIT and Harvard Medical School have come up with DermalAbyss, using a tattoo as an interface for measuring biochemistry.

In 2015, a TU Delft project called FlightBeat, supported by KLM and Zodiac Aerospace, featured an aircraft cabin that could monitor passenger health and sentiment through seat-mounted heart rate monitors.  The Wearable Computing Laboratory at ETH Zurich focused on integrating contactless sensors into the airline seat itself, so that passenger wouldn’t feel like a lab rat. As described in a video, “Should the seat detect a critical level of dehydration in a passenger, it automatically advises the cabin personnel.”

Airlines are now much better poised to use existing biometric data feeds via passengers’ mobile phones. Next-generation in-flight entertainment and communications systems (IFEC), such as Panasonic Avionics’ NEXT, can sync with passengers’ phones, allowing them a consistent, end-to-end experience even when changing planes. Biometric data, shuttled through the same phone, could also be used to augment that experience.

This steps into the realm of predictive medicine, where passenger hydration data triggers proactive medical intervention – either in the air or through ground-based support – rather than waiting for external symptoms to be noticed by the flight crew. This futuristic version of Omotenashi, the Japanese style of predictive hospitality, would entail a rather intimate relationship between the airline and the body of the passenger, who may not want flight attendants to become helicopter parents.

Even at cruising altitude, the Internet of Things its becoming more closely connected to the human body. But what is the business case for monitoring passenger hydration levels, and how close will passengers let an airline get to their bodies? Some laws throw cold water on this kind of data collection, such as the United States’ Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. This twenty-year-old law prevents third parties from grabbing health data without express consent, though tech companies are fighting to get such laws changed or overturned.