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“Tricorder-Like” Technology Could Provide Contact-Free Ultrasound

By Suzanne Hodsden

Video screencap courtesy of Arbabian Lab / Stanford University

Stanford Scientists have developed “tricorder-like” technology using radio frequency and ultrasound to detect embedded objects in highly dispersive materials, such as water, mud, or human tissue. Though the technology was originally intended to safely locate buried explosives, the research team plans to use its research to develop a more portable medical imaging device capable of detecting early-stage cancer.

In 2012, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) launched a program that would grant funding to research investigating new methods for detecting plastic improvised explosive devices (IEDs) without putting military personnel at risk of a possible detonation. So far, the project — named Methods for Explosive Detection at Standoff (MEDS) — has issued seven grants to tech companies and academic institutions, including Quasar Federal Systems, University of Arizona, Northeastern University, and Stanford.

Researchers told Stanford News that all objects expand or contract when exposed to electromagnetic waves, and these expansions and contractions produce specific ultrasonic waves, which can be interpreted into images.  Fetal ultrasound works this way, but the transducer is held to the mother’s skin to reduce transmission loss in the air.

Since the DARPA challenge stipulated that the method must be contact-free, the team accommodated for the necessary distance by building a capacitive micromachined ultrasosnic transducer (CMUT), designed to pick up weaker signals in the air.

“What makes the tricorder the Holy Grail of detection devices is that the instrument never touches the subject,” said electrical engineer Amin Arbabian, who led the research.  “All the measurements are made through the air, and that’s where we’ve made the biggest strides.”

In a paper published in Applied Physics Letters, researchers demonstrated proof of concept for their radio frequency/ultrasound hybrid technology and told Stanford News their ideas could easily translate into a medical indication with the next five to fifteen years.

“We think we could develop instrumentation sufficiently sensitive to disclose the presence of tumors, and perhaps other health anomalies, much earlier than current detection systems, non-intrusively and with a handheld portable device,” said Arbabian.

Though it’s not yet clear how imaging quality would compare to existing MRI, CT, and X-ray technology, Arbabian told Tech.Mic his team’s technology would be much less expensive, easier to power, more portable, and potentially safer. While he doesn’t see an at-home application in its future, he suggested that the device could be used bedside by trained technicians.

The University of Arizona, which was also granted funding from MEDS, adapted its existing breast cancer research into potential IED detection. Arizona researchers also used microwaves and ultrasounds, but they use a novel spectroscopic process to create an ultrasound image.

According to Popular Science, the Stanford technology isn’t the first to explore the potential of tricorder-like capabilities, and other approaches have used mass spectrometry or magnetic resonance to detect disease. Last year, the Qualcomm Tricorder XPrize promised $10 million to creators of a device that could detect no less than 15 diseases and monitor vitals for 72 hours.