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Ultrawideband Takes Us Closer To Star Trek Tricorders

Advances in ultrawideband could help support "body area networks" and next-gen health monitoring devices, university research says.

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The use of ultrawideband (UWB) technology to monitor a person's vital signs through sophisticated body-area networks could usher in the next generation of mobile devices for healthcare monitoring. But the development of this technology will take time and more bandwidth, according to a new study by electrical engineers at Oregon State University (OSU).

In a research paper entitled "Experimental Characterization of a UWB Channel for Body Area Networks," which was recently published in the EURASIP Journal on Wireless Communications and Networking, researchers concluded that ultrawideband, which is a radio technology that can be used at very low energy levels and can support the transmission of vast amounts of health data in real time, is a promising technology for wireless body area networks (BANs).

BANs, which are computing devices worn on, in, and near the body for health monitoring purposes, are generating increased interest among the medical and high tech community as the technology can capture physiological electrical signals from the human body including brain waves, heart health, and muscle response.

"For a real-time vital sign monitoring system, a single (or multiple) wearable sensor node with a wireless transmitter is attached to a patient, while the receiver is attached to some nearby fixed location (e.g., a wrist watch or ceiling). The sensor captures the real-time physiological signals, activating the transmitter that sends a low-data-rate signal to the receiver, alerting a remote clinician through cellular or Internet networks," researchers wrote.

Patrick Chiang, assistant professor in the OSU School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and co-author of the report, said in a statement that improvements in wireless body-area networks using small sensors could lead to significantly advances in the way healthcare is monitored.

"This type of sensing would scale a monitor down to something about the size of a bandage that you could wear around with you. The sensor might provide and transmit data on some important things, like heart health, bone density, blood pressure, or insulin status," Chiang said. "Ideally, you could not only monitor health issues but also help prevent problems before they happen. Maybe detect arrhythmias, for instance, and anticipate heart attacks. And it needs to be non-invasive, cheap, and able to provide huge amounts of data."

However, developing this kind of sophisticated sensing technology has been elusive, which is why the X Prize Foundation developed a Tricorder X Prize--inspired by the remarkable instrument of Star Trek fame--that would give $10 million to whoever can create a handheld device equipped with sensors that allowed doctors to noninvasively scan their patients, providing instant results on blood characteristics, vital signs, and other parameters. Such a mobile wireless sensor could give billions of people around the world better access to low-cost, reliable medical monitoring and diagnostics.

The potential for this kind of technology can't be overstated. As the healthcare system increasingly moves toward prevention of illness through closely monitoring a person to track any changes in their health, researchers say ultrawideband technology can offer continuous, real-time diagnosis, which in turn can reduce the onset of degenerative diseases, save lives, and cut healthcare costs.

However, developing this technology is difficult, with one key barrier being the need to transmit large amounts of data while consuming very little energy.

Through their experiments, the OSU researchers found that ultrawideband might have that capability if the receiver getting the data were within a line of sight and not interrupted by passing through a human body. But even non-line of sight transmission might be possible using ultrawideband if lower transmission rates were used.

"Ultrawideband communication is a promising technology for next generation body sensor networks due to its potential for both low power and large bandwidth, currently unavailable using conventional narrowband systems," the researchers concluded.

The Healthcare IT Leadership Forum is a day-long venue where senior IT leaders in healthcare come together to discuss how they're using technology to improve clinical care. It happens in New York City on July 12. Find out more.

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