British Airways has filed a patent for a digital pill designed to be swallowed by passengers before their flight. The micro device could then be used to transmit physiological data to the crew about how the person is feeling.

For decades, onboard crew have been trained in customer service techniques to pick up on passengers who might look unwell, are drunk or in an unpredictable mood, and take steps to anticipate their needs and behaviour. At the front end of the plane, in business and first class, crew pride themselves on providing people with what they need before they have to ask for it. But it may not always be obvious that someone is cold or dehydrated, for example.

A digital pill, however, would be able to measure a passenger’s stomach acidity, temperature, sleep phase and heart rate. In so doing, cabin crew could better manage the serving of food and drink, cabin climate, seat positions and lighting. They could also detect any nervous passengers and offer them reassurance.

The “ingestible sensor” for “controlling the travel environment for a passenger” was filed by British Airways as a patent application to the Intellectual Property Office earlier this year. It stated: “What is desired is a system that facilitates greater efficiencies within the aircraft travel environment and enables improved control and personalisation of the passenger’s travel environment, in particular for enhanced passenger wellness and wellbeing when flying.”

The airline also believes it could help alleviate the symptoms of jet-lag, citing Virgin Atlantic’s Jet Lag Fighter app that allows passengers to enter personal data and flight information to access guidance on when to sleep, stay awake, exercise and get exposure to light.

The digital pill, on the other hand, would automatically transmit information wirelessly to a central onboard aircraft system, could show crew whether a passenger was “awake, asleep, hungry, nervous, hot, cold [or] uncomfortable”. This would save the traveller from entering their data manually or from pressing the “call” button for help.

It could also be beneficial for those that don’t speak the same language as cabin crew, or feel too inhibited to speak up. Many people don’t like to make a fuss on planes so will suffer in silence – heart arrest, panic attacks and seizures do happen in the air, but a pre-emptive alert of someone’s vital signs could make a big difference to the outcome.

Having to deal with passenger complaints is a big part of the job for airline attendants, and one that could distract them from doing more important duties. If the pilot can immediately see that people on board are cold via signals from a digital pill, he can turn up the heating before they start to complain.

It would also make them more sensitive to how people are feeling during delays or bad weather, when there is an increase in stress and anxiety, and sometimes just a few comforting words from the cockpit can be a help. Air rage and other extreme or potentially dangerous behaviour could also be pre-empted.

Whether or not this innovation becomes a reality remains to be seen. The technology is available but it will come down to whether people would actually want to want to use it. A spokesperson for BA told The Standard: “We are always looking to deliver new innovations for our customers, whether it be in design or digital transformation. As such, we develop many ideas and submit many patents.”

Airlines have a history of filing all sorts of patents but many are not developed. For example, iPad-style interactive windows and first class Sky Decks. However, digital pills are science fact rather than science fiction. They are already being in by astronauts, soldiers, athletes and colonoscopy patients, for instance, to take pictures of their insides, monitor their temperature (useful in extreme climates) and measure drug absorption.

In the 1990s, NASA developed a “thermometer pill” for astronauts in Space. Apparently, “scientists hoped to better understand the physical deconditioning astronauts experience in the weightlessness of space. They also hoped to study how the rigours of space travel might mirror the human ageing process on Earth”.

A few years on, in the early noughties, CorTemp Ingestible Core Body Thermometer Pill was extended to football players after a series of heat-related deaths and illnesses. (Heatstroke is the third leading cause of death among athletes in the US.)

NASA says: “Within two hours of being swallowed, the thermometer pill transmits vital information that can be used to prevent and treat heat-related illnesses. Team personnel can non-invasively and wirelessly monitor the core body temperature of multiple athletes in real time. There are several options and configurations for tracking athletes, including the most simple method of holding a data recorder near the small of the back to read data from the thermometer inside of the body.”

It adds: “Beyond the sporting world, the ingestible capsules have also been used to monitor the core body temperatures of firefighters and divers, two groups working in opposite temperature extremes. Doctors have utilised the technology to study sleep disorders and improve heart surgery techniques. The technology has also been used to monitor critical temperatures in paper manufacturing, food processing, and jumbo television sets found at sport stadiums.”

In 2015, MIT developed a more advanced “ingestible” microchip that has a microphone, a thermometer and a battery built into it. Performing a variety of functions at the same time, the tiny computer was tested with success on half a dozen pigs.

Google X, meanwhile, has been experimenting with magnetic nanoparticles that can pick up on the early signs of cancer and other dis­eases inside the human body. According to The Independent, they are “one-thousandth the width of a red blood cell that are ‘painted’ with antibodies or proteins and that can home in on early markers of disease”.

A wearable sensor of some sort – a wristband for example – would constantly monitor the findings of these particles and issue reports to doctors, giving them “an early heads-up” about potential problems and switching medicine “from reactive to proactive”.

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