Ultra cheap ultrasound scanner could reduce maternal deaths in
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
“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
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
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.