Low-cost scanner could provide ultrasound in developing world

Researchers at Newcastle University have developed a low-cost ultrasound scanner that could provide greater access to medical imaging in the developing world.

The hand-held device works in a similar way to conventional ultrasound equipment, using pulses of high-frequency sound to produce an image of an unborn baby, but can operate with a regular PC instead of an expensive, specialised computer.

The scanner’s inventor, senior lecturer Jeff Neasham, was able to keep the cost of the equipment to less than £40 (if mass produced) by redesigning its circuitry and applying signal-processing techniques from underwater sonar technology.

‘In the developing world there’s almost no ultrasound capability at all so obstetrics is the obvious application,’ he told The Engineer. ‘There’s a staggering number of women who die in childbirth due to complications and even a crude imaging capability might have an impact.

‘But ultrasound can be used for things such as looking at the liver, gall bladder — that kind of thing. And it could be used in emergency medicine as well, looking for internal bleeding or foreign objects.’

The new scanner has to be manually moved across the patient’s body and can only produce an image every few seconds because it only includes one transducer, unlike conventional equipment that uses an array of transducers to produce real-time video images.

But this keeps the cost of manufacturing and running the scanner low — its power output is 10–100 times lower than typical ultrasounds — and enables images to be produced using a conventional PC rather than the large free-standing processing units used by existing models that can cost up to £100,000 per unit.

Neasham decided to build the device after his pregnant wife asked him whether he could put his expertise in developing sonar imaging and underwater communications systems to use creating a cheaper ultrasound scanner.

After several years of research, he has produced several prototypes featuring specially designed circuit boards and 3D-printed casing and is now looking to develop the technology for commercial mass production.

‘It’s at the stage where we’re improving the image day by day,’ he said. ‘We’re just putting the finishing touches on another prototype that will have enhanced image quality, largely just by perfecting the transducer production.’

A new low-cost ultrasound scanner from Newcastle University could provide greater access to medical imaging in the developing world