Ultrasound machines are important for understanding babies’ health, and for giving moms a clear picture of what’s happening in their bodies. But the machines have traditionally been available only to wealthy countries or to wealthy people in poor countries. Current top-end ultrasound devices have a price range of $30,000 to $300,000, and even the low-end portable devices still cost $8,000. Now, a group of UK researchers has created an even cheaper version of the high-tech baby monitor for use in less well-off communities.
The device, which costs around $70, uses an external computer as the display and an interface for a USB-powered probe. The Newcastle University researchers say that the device works like existing ultrasound scanners, using pulses of high frequency sound to build up a picture of the unborn child on the computer screen—but the output power is 10 to 100 times lower than that of conventional hospital ultrasounds. The design keeps components and hardware costs to an absolute minimum, and it works by manually sweeping a transducer over the skin while a focused image is formed by the PC software.
The current prototype is tuned for obstetrics and general abdominal imaging, but the researchers say the parameters could be adapted to suit other applications. Around 250,000 women die each year from complications in pregnancy and childbirth, 99% of them in developing countries, according to the United Nations.
Though the pictures are lower-resolution than top-end ultrasound models, they are still clear enough to make out a baby’s profile, for example. Already the device is making waves in India, where sex-selective abortions are common. "'Earlier, people had to come to hospitals in cities for ultrasound," a girl child campaigner told the Daily Mail. "Then they started taking smaller ultrasound machines in ambulances and now portable machines are being used.'"
The researchers maintain that the device will help women who live in areas where it’s been out of reach to get an ultrasound. ""We hope the very low cost of this device and the fact that it can run on any standard computer made in the last ten years means basic antenatal imaging could finally be made available to all women," Jeff Nesham of Newcastle University said in a press release. Nesham had previously designed systems to image the sea floor using sonar, and he recently applied his expertise to medical devices.
For top-end consumers, a Japanese company called Fasotec will sell them a 3-D printout of the fetus in utero.