Sensors pick up skin temperature, blood oxygen saturation, blood pressure and heart rate – all of which are parameters associated with coronaviruses.

Professor Loh Xian Jun, who is one of the scientists behind the invention, told The Straits Times that the inspiration for the system came around the circuit breaker period.

In hospitals, such “smart masks” could be given to Covid-19 patients, allowing staff to monitor their vital signs remotely, reducing the risk of infection for front-line workers.

Together with Prof Chen Xiaodong from the School of Materials Science and Engineering at the Nanyang Technological University, and a team of fellow scientists, Prof Loh produced a series of sensors.

But placing the thumb-sized sensors on the inside of a mask would be uncomfortable for the wearer, so the team integrated them into an artificial skin-like substrate.     

By integrating the chip into the elastic material, it allows the wearer to feel more comfortable and also increases the sensitivity of the chip.

The extremely flexible and durable material, which is also water-resistant, protects the chip as well, allowing it to be reused multiple times, said Prof Chen. The device can be sewn into the cheek area of a regular reusable or disposable face mask, added Prof Loh. It could theoretically be washed and reused along with the mask.

Prof Loh said that currently, the priority is to distribute the monitoring system when it is ready to front-line workers and patients in hospitals, and for it to be used in dormitories before it is made available to the general public.