Pregnant wife inspires engineer to build affordable, hand-held baby scanner that could save thousands of lives
Sonar expert Jeff Neasham used cheap components to make a hand-held scanner which can plug into a laptopPictures of the unborn child can then be viewed on the computer's screenDevice could be manufactured for 30 to 40 compared to the ultrasound machines in hospitals which cost betweem 20,000 to 100,000
09:52 GMT, 14 September 2012
A mother-to-be inspired her electronic engineer husband to devise a new low-cost baby scanner which could save hundreds of thousands of lives.
Sonar expert Jeff Neasham used cheap components to make a hand-held scanner which can plug into a laptop and produce pictures of the unborn child on the computer screen.
The Newcastle University lecturer’s device could be manufactured for 30-40 compared to the ultrasound machines in UK hospitals which cost 20,000 to 100,000.
That means the scanners – devised by Mr Neasham and research associate Dave Graham – would be much more affordable for developing countries.
Low-cost: Sonar expert Jeff Neasham (left) and PhD student Dave Graham used cheap components to make a hand-held scanner which can plug into a laptop and produce pictures of an unborn child on a computer screen
In use: Mr Neasham demonstrates his new ultrasound scanner with mother-to-be Lucy Ord from Newcastle
The 39-year-old father-of-two was inspired when his wife Zoe was expecting their first daughter, who is now seven.
He said: 'The idea came from my own experiences sat 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.
'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.'
The technology could have a major life-saving effect as UN figures show 250,000 women die every year from complications during pregnancy or child birth. Many deaths are avoidable, but for a lack of equipment.
Mr 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.
Staggering saving: The device could be manufactured for 30-40 compared to the ultrasound machines in UK hospitals which cost 20,000 to 100,000
Important work: The technology could have a major life-saving effect as UN figures show 250,000 women die every year from complications during pregnancy or child birth
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.
Mr Neasham, from Newcastle University’s School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, is an expert in underwater sonar technology and has developed systems for imaging the seabed – looking for ship wrecks or specific geographical features – as well as underwater communications and tracking systems.
He said: 'We are just trying to get the resolution of the images as good as we can, then we will hand it over to the experts.
'My wife is very excited about it.
'I keep reminding her it was all her idea.
'There is still work to be done and it is by no means the finished product but we are very optimistic.'
Vets and farmers have also expressed interest in low-cost scanning.
The research was funded through an Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council Knowledge Transfer Account.