ATL begins work on futuristicminiature ultrasound scanner

March 13, 1996

Shades of `Star Trek' in this handheld deviceSeveral technology companies, led by ultrasound vendor ATL, arecollaborating with experts in academia to develop what promisesto be a revolutionary ultrasound device -- one that fits in thepalm of a

Shades of `Star Trek' in this handheld device

Several technology companies, led by ultrasound vendor ATL, arecollaborating with experts in academia to develop what promisesto be a revolutionary ultrasound device -- one that fits in thepalm of a hand. The device would have the basic features of amachine that today weighs several hundred pounds, but would bemobile enough to be carried by emergency medical technicians tothe scene of an accident. Once there, a telemedicine link wouldbe activated, transmitting images back to a radiologist who couldguide the examination with audio instructions.

"What this means is that patients could be triaged quicklyand a decision could be made about whether they need to be transportedto a place where they can receive interventional therapy to gethemorrhage under control or to deal with injured organs,"said Dr. William Shuman, a clinical professor at the Universityof Washington in Seattle, who specializes in trauma care.

For example, the scanner could indicate whether body organsare distorted due to internal bleeding, or if blood is flowingthrough vessels affected by shrapnel, bone, or other debris.

In the increasingly high-tech world of modern warfare, a handheldultrasound scanner would be a natural. That is why the Departmentof Defense (DOD) plans to invest more than $6 million in the projectover the next two years, matching the amount to be invested bya consortium that includes the Bothell, WA, ultrasound company,the University of Washington, Harris Semiconductor of Melbourne,FL, and VLSI Technology of San Jose, CA.

The project, which is now under way, has roots extending backseveral years. ATL engineers had been exploring the idea of ahandheld ultrasound scanner, unaware that engineers led by LawrenceCrum at the nearby UW Applied Physics Laboratory were doing thesame. When the university began to make inquiries about the technology,"It was a meeting of the minds," according to StephenCarter, a clinical associate professor of radiology at UW andthe co-principal investigator on the DOD-funded project.

But it was the military that got the idea off the ground. Fundsfor projects that have both military and civilian applicationsare available from the Technology Reinvestment Project (TRP) ofthe Advanced Research Projects Agency, which is part of DOD.

Lauren Pflugrath, senior director of systems engineering atATL, noted that TRP requires collaboration among several companies.Although the input of academia is not needed, "Some of thethings being done at the UW Applied Physics Laboratory reallystrengthened the proposal we turned in and the project as a whole,"he said.

There are surprisingly few strings attached, considering themillions of dollars being bestowed by DOD.

"If we don't advance our technology after many years,they have the right to some access to it," Pflugrath said."But it is our technology and that of the other companies."

The project to develop a prototype of the handheld scanneris funded for the next two years at $12.6 million. Four yearsfrom now, ATL executives would like to have the technology nearcommercialization.

But regardless of progress achieved in R&D, there is littlechance that the handheld scanner will compete with dedicated radiologyultrasound systems.

"The capabilities that require large amounts of computerpower, like 3-D or rapid color-flow imaging, probably aren't goingto be able to be built into a machine like this, at least initially,"Shuman said. "But many of the capabilities of a high-resolutionultrasound machine will be there, such as high-resolution imaging,the ability to use multiple kinds of transducers, rapid framerate, and the ability to make accurate measurements."

The ability to build these functions into the handheld scannerdepends on the project's success in miniaturizing ATL's digitaltechnology as embodied in the vendor's HDI 3000 radiology scanner.The main thrust now is to develop application-specific integratedcircuits (ASICs) that reduce the number and size of components.

If the engineers on this project succeed, the consortium'shandheld device might be ready for general use in four to fiveyears, at about the same time the trend toward telemedicine couldbe in high gear.

"It would project the intellectual capabilities of anultrasound expert into areas the experts simply didn't get tobefore," Shuman said.