A low cost scanner that can be plugged into any computer to show images of an unborn baby has been developed by Newcastle University engineers.

The hand-held USB device – which is roughly the size of a computer mouse – works in a similar way to existing ultrasound scanners, using pulses of high frequency sound to build up a picture of the unborn child on the computer screen when a transducer is moved over the skin.

However, unlike the expensive ultrasound machines used in most hospitals, which can cost up to £100,000, the scanner created by Jeff Neasham at Newcastle University can be manufactured for as little as £30.

According to Neasham, he was able to keep the design and hardware costs to an absolute minimum thanks to his experience  in sonar signal processing. The scanner produces an output power that is 10-100 times lower than conventional hospital ultrasounds.

Neasham, an engineer at Newcastle University’s School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, said: “Cost was the key. The goal was to produce a device that could be made for a similar cost to the hand-held Doppler devices used by most  midwives.  Not an easy task when you consider a £20,000 scanner is generally classed as low cost.”

It is hoped the device, which can be used with any standard PC made in the last ten years, will be used to provide antenatal information that could save the lives of hundreds of thousands of women and children in poor countries. UN statistics estimate that more than 250,000 women die annually from complications during pregnancy or childbirth, almost all of them – 99 per cent – in developing countries.  Tragically, most of these deaths are avoidable and a lack of access to equipment is cited as one of the key factors.

Neasham, an expert in underwater sonar technology, has previously developed systems for imaging the seabed to look for ship wrecks or specific geographical features.

“It was my own experience of becoming a father and going through the whole antenatal process that prompted me to start the project,” explains the father-of-two.

“I was sat with my wife looking at our child on the screen, we realised how privileged we were to have access to this kind of care and it was my wife who suggested that I could apply my knowledge from sonar research to try to make this more affordable.”

If you happen to be a large medical device manufacturing company, information on licensing the technology can be found here.

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