Ultra cheap ultrasound scanner could reduce maternal deaths in developing countries

24 September 2012

A sonar engineer at Newcastle University has developed a low cost ultrasound scanner that can plug into a normal laptop to produce images of a foetus.

The hand-held device, which is roughly the size of a computer mouse, can be manufactured for as little as £30-40, compared to a typical ultrasound scanner price of £20,000 to £100,000.

Father-of-two Jeff Neasham, a lecturer in the University’s School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, was inspired when his wife Zoe was expecting their first daughter, who is now seven. He said: “The idea came from looking at the pictures of our unborn child. It was my wife’s idea; she suggested we could apply what we knew to make them more affordable and make a low-cost system for lots of people around the world.

“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.”

For the first five years, it was just a pet project. “We ticked along on a shoe-string budget then we started to get some promising results and so we got funding (from EPSRC) to build a prototype," he said.

“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 the images are improving on a daily basis and we are trying to get more clinicians involved.”

Jeff Neasham and research associate Dave Graham with the scanner
Jeff Neasham and research associate Dave Graham with the scanner

Tested by experts in the Regional Medical Physics Department at the Freeman Hospital, part of the Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, the scanner produces an output power that is 10-100 times lower than conventional hospital ultrasounds.

“Here in the UK we take these routine, but potentially lifesaving, tests for granted,” explained Neasham, a lecturer in the University’s School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering. “Imaging to obtain even the simplest information such as the child’s position in the womb or how it is developing is simply not available to women in many parts of the world.

“We hope the very low cost of this device and the fact that it can run on any standard computer made in the last 10 years means basic antenatal imaging could finally be made available to all women.”

He said the original aim had been to make something portable and easy to use that would be affordable in developing countries as well as for some applications in the UK where ultrasound is still considered cost prohibitive. “Cost was the key,” he explains. “The goal was to produce a device that could be produced for a similar cost to the hand-held Doppler devices (foetal heart monitors) used by most community midwives. Not an easy task when you consider a £20,000 scanner is generally classed as low cost.”

Funded through an Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) Knowledge Transfer Account (KTA) and a Proof of Concept loan from NorthStar Ventures, the scanner requires nothing more than a computer with a USB port in order to work. Mr Neasham said the beauty of this device was that it would complement, rather than replace, the high performance scanners available in hospitals.

UN statistics estimate more than 250,000 women die annually from complications during pregnancy or childbirth, 99% in developing countries. Most of these deaths are avoidable and a lack of access to equipment is cited as one of the key factors.


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