This Smartphone App Which Works On Sonar Waves Can Actually Identify And Report Opioid Overdose

Drug abuse is an alarming global crisis. Reports suggest that each day over 130 people die of an opioid overdose in the US. Opioids are a class of drugs that are primarily used in medication for pain relief including anaesthesia, however, also have high addictive characteristics which increases its chance of abuse as a medicine.Opioids also include the illegal drug heroine.

Today painkillers are very common and most high-grade painkillers used in medication — for both acute and chronic pain — contain a high level of opioids. Even though the US has the highest rate of opioid overdoses, India has its fair share in both the medical condition as well as the export of medicines that have high opioid content such as tramadol. Fentanyl imported from China is a synthetic opioid which is the major cause for opioid overdoses in the US.

Over the years scientists have come up with various solutions to tackle the havoc caused by opioids. Naloxone, an opioid antidote that can reverse the opioid overdose is one such example. But the challenge of reaching the patient in time still keeps the death rate due to opioids high.

Jacob Sunshine, an assistant professor of anesthesiology and pain medicine at the University of Washington says that the main point is to connect the patients with the known and established therapies that work.

An App That Saves Lives

A study published recently in the journal Science Translational Medicine proposes a tool that will connect the patients with the medical services in time. A smartphone application that constantly monitors your respiration through the use of sonar waves emitted by the speakers and detected by the microphones in the smartphone.

How It Works

Opioid overdoses lead to death often by affecting the respiratory functioning. The application is programmed to detect when a user starts breathing slowly or in a not normal way.

The application emits sonar waves through the speakers on the smartphone and analyses the users’ chest movement during breathing by detecting the waves that bounce back from the users’ body through the microphone. The movement of the chest during breathing creates variation in the signal that the application monitors. So when a person stops breathing for more than 30 seconds the application will generate a warning alarm to which if the user doesn’t respond, the application will alert the emergency units or friends or relatives. The application is designed in a way that it will not respond or disturb the user if he or she is just having a single central apnea event or a 10-second duration where the person doesn’t breathe.

Test Proves Worthy

The application was successfully tested in a controlled environment where the drug users injected opioid under the surveillance of health professionals who were equipped with naloxone to use if needed. The application was able to correctly identify 45 out of 47 instances when a user went overdose.

Another test was made on the people who were receiving anaesthesia before surgery. Anaesthetics contain opioids such as fentanyl which causes an overdose to knock the patient unconscious. The application correctly identified the patients who lost consciousness due to overdose in 19 out of 20 cases.


Even though the fact that such an application is helpful is unquestionable, like all applications, this too comes with its own set of flaws.

In order to get accurate readings, the smartphone must be within one meter to the user and must be stationary on a flat surface. Not the kind of discipline that we can expect from a typical drug user.

Another issue is that the application must be turned on after the drug has been taken. Some critics worry that this may not be possible as in some cases the drug instantly taps the consciousness of the user leaving him or her unable to do anything let alone be able to turn on the app.


Technology is revolutionalizing the healthcare sector whether it be robots that can perform surgeries or applications that can monitor health 24×7. Let us hope that technology will lead the way to a more healthy generation.

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Amal Nair
A Computer Science Engineer turned Data Scientist who is passionate about AI and all related technologies. Contact:

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