Neil Clark could have died in a plane crash in Florida. However, the entrepreneur’s brush with death kick-started a change in career that has led to the invention of what could be the world’s first non-pharmaceutical Covid-19 detection system.

“My instructor couldn’t make it for my night flying lesson, so my colleague went up with his instructor instead,” the RAF reserve pilot explained. The plane stalled and the crash left both his colleague and the instructor in intensive care for weeks.

“I realised this wasn’t human error – it was a system failure,” he said. “The plane stalled because the carburettor blocked up due to icing – something the British pilots didn’t think would happen in Florida. It could have been me in that plane and I would have done the exact same thing.”

Since that fateful day in 1999, the Musselburgh-born pilot has focused on human factors – the interaction between people and complex systems. He completed his Masters at Heriot-Watt University and founded his business Integrated Human Factors Ltd. Based in Colinton in Edinburgh, the company works in the aviation sector as well as other high-risk industries like oil and gas, rail, marine, and healthcare.

The 40-year-old recently beat over 90 other companies to win a tender with UK Tram to develop a piece of wearable technology that would monitor drivers for signs of fatigue, stress and other indicators that would affect their fitness to operate the machinery.

“It takes primary metrics in real time, which is 100 times per second – and we’ve realised this makes it the ideal detector of Covid-19,” explains Clark.

Since February, IHF has recruited seven people to work on the project, including two data scientists, two designers and two medics – one of
whom is a neurologist.

The product works by gathering the data on the individual from a device worn on the wrist. These data are processed in the cloud using algorithms and machine learning.

Over time an accurate picture of the wearer’s baseline health is built and it is against this that the software can spot departures – such as an increase in body temperature or changes in respiratory rate.

“This is not a medical device – it’s a duty-of-care device,” Clark explained. “The data always belongs to the individual and we’ve taken great care to ensure data security and integrity. If the device spots a deviation, it alerts the user. Where appropriate – for example in high-risk jobs in oil and gas, nuclear energy,  and driving heavy machinery – it will also alert the line manager.”

If this all sounds a little bit like Big Brother is watching, you only have to remember the devastation caused by the bin lorry crash in Glasgow in 2014 to realise how important it is to measure “fitness to operate”.

“There is a very specific need for this device,” Clark said.

“It takes you from a snapshot to a spectrum of care. Human performance is the biggest variable in operational safety – we humans are the ones who make a system high risk.”

He is also exploring the possibility of the technology being able to connect to the machinery, to apply an emergency brake, for example.

Other potential benefits of the system include greater awareness of overall health. Anyone who has ever worn a Fitbit or Apple Watch will know the effects on their psychology of counting steps or closing rings – or even just being aware of their heart rate.

The product, named Altor – is Latin for caregiver – is one of a suite of tools developed by IHF. From the beginning, Clark was keen to offer clients a method of measuring results and setting goals in a tangible way. These tools cover accident investigation and behavioural markers, for example, and include games to measure human and organisational performance.

As the newest offering, Altor is going through several commercial trials at the moment and Clark is eagerly awaiting the news in a few weeks as to whether the technology will gain access to the main Covid-19 database.

This extra data would allow the machine learning to mature far quicker. All going well, the product will be available for commercial use in June 2021, with a monthly cost per user.

“I’m really excited about the potential of Altor to detect the early signs of
Covid-19,” Clark said.