U.K. engineers target developing world with ultra-cheap ultrasound

Engineers at the U.K.'s Newcastle University have developed an ultrasound scanner that costs £40 (about $65) to produce, and they're looking for commercial backing to market the devices in underserved parts of the world.

As Reuters reports, the hand-held scanner is about the size of a computer mouse and can plug into any computer made in the past 10 years. As it stands, hospital-based scanners cost between £20,000 and £100,000 ($32,100 and $160,600), while portable, lower-cost techs go for more than £4,500 ($7,000) each, according to the news service.

Jeff Neasham, a sonar technology specialist at Newcastle and developer of the device, said his team took cues from sea-bed imaging technology, using a few signal-processing "tricks" to simplify the device and bring down production costs. Neasham told Reuters that while the device's image output isn't up to par with high-dollar, hospital-based ultrasounds, it compares well to other portable technologies.

The Newcastle team is looking to get the devices in the hands of those who need them most, and the company is in early-stage discussions with companies and charities to fund a launch, Neasham said. And there's no question of need: About 250,000 women die from pregnancy and childbirth complications each year, and 99% of them are in the developing world, according to the United Nations.

As Reuters notes, worldwide heavies like GE Healthcare ($GE) and Siemens ($SI) are investing in the development of low-cost imaging technologies for emerging markets, but, so far, no one has proposed a device as cheap as Newcastle's.

For Neasham, inspiration for the device sprouted from his own experience as a parent. "I sat with my wife looking at our child on the screen. We realized 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," he told Reuters.

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