Profile of baby's face and head from the ultrasound scanner

Newcastle engineers develop new ultrasound scanner

Engineers at Newcastle University have developed an ultrasound scanner that costs under £40.

The device, if it gets commercial backing, would enter a market where hospital-based ultrasound scanners cost anything between £20,000 and £100,000 and low-cost, portable devices sell for around £4,500 each.

"You could be looking at something certainly less than £200 [to buy]," said Jeff Neasham, the sonar technology specialist at Newcastle University who developed the device with his colleague Dave Graham.

"Things are at a very early stage," Neasham said. 

"We have talked to a couple of interested companies and have had contact with a couple of charities, but we are still looking for partners."

Around 250,000 women die each year from complications in pregnancy and childbirth, 99 per cent of them in developing countries, according to the United Nations.

Some of the world's biggest healthcare equipment companies like General Electric and Siemens are pouring resources into developing low-cost devices for emerging markets.

GE has developed a handheld ultrasound scanner called Vscan with an integrated screen and Seattle-based start-up firm Mobisante has a device that can link to a smartphone for viewing.

The Newcastle University scanner is about the size of a computer mouse and can be used via a USB plug with any PC or laptop built in the last 10 years, which the developers hope will make it accessible.

Neasham said keeping the cost as low as possible was the main driver behind the project.

He said there were some programmes to make computers more available in the developing world but it was still not a given that everyone in Africa would have a laptop.

Neasham tapped into his experience developing systems for imaging the seabed and looking for shipwrecks to create the device, which uses pulses of high frequency sound, just like any other ultrasound scanner.

"There are tricks we employ in sonar signal processing to simplify the hardware," he said.

"There are certainly techniques in this device that to the best of my knowledge have never been incorporated in a medical device before."

He admits the quality of the image needs improving but said it stacked up quite favourably against more expensive scanners.

Neasham said his own experience of becoming a father prompted him to start the project.

"I was sat with my wife looking at our child on the screen.

"We realised how privileged we were to have access to this kind of care and it was my wife who suggested that I could apply my knowledge from sonar research to try to make this more affordable.

"My background is in sonar which is very similar to ultrasound. I started to have a think and I just treated it as an interesting engineering challenge, to see what was the absolute minimum cost of components needed to produce any kind of useful image.

"We ticked along on a shoe-string budget then we started to get some promising results and so we got funding to build a prototype.

"We used techniques we use in sonar signal production to simplify the circuitry and transducer design while trying to maintain a reasonable resolution in the images.

"We are not at the stage where we can completely match the image quality of a really high-end scanner but we are getting closer and closer."

Neasham said his images could easily show if a baby was in the breach position, but the definition was not yet high enough to determine the sex. 

There were other uses away from obstetrics, such as diagnosing gallstones and liver problems, but health professionals will determine what else could be done with the technology.

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