Devices designed to work inside the body, such as pacemakers or camera capsules, send data back out of the body, so doctors can monitor a patient’s health. But this signal, which is transmitted over radio waves, is weak and slow, operating at a maximum of 50 kilobytes per second (for reference, the recommended download speed to properly watch Netflix is ââ1.5 megabits, or about 188 kilobytes). The FCC requires devices to be low power, “which inherently limits the communication rates of these devices … to a maximum of 50 kbps,” according to a new document.
A team of researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign has found a way to increase bandwidth for these electronic devices, a plan they call MEAT-COMMS. Researchers published a study last month in ArXiv, what was covered today in New Scientist.
Instead of using radio waves, the researchers created devices that transmit digital data through ultrasound. In previous studies, many of which were conducted underwater, researchers found that ultrasound allowed the signal to pass more clearly (with less loss) and over greater distances. Plus, it’s been used for decades as a way to take body images, so it’s known to be safe and effective.
In the study, researchers tested the speed and fidelity of ultrasonic wireless communication between a transducer, which converts data into ultrasonic vibrations, and a hydrophone, a microphone that picks up sound waves underwater. They placed the two devices on either side of a piece of meat (a plastic-wrapped beef liver in one trial, a pork loin in another).
They found that the maximum transmission speed was around 30 megabits per second, enough bandwidth to watch Netflix in Ultra HD quality. And while you probably wouldn’t use any of these devices to stream the latest movies inside your body (let’s be honest), this is a big deal for researchers who want to use devices to collect data like videos. and send them back to their computers for analysis.
There could be a downside, however. Anything connected to the internet is vulnerable to hacking, and medical devices are no exception. In fact, last year some experts predicted that hacked medical devices would pose the greatest cybersecurity risk this year. If the devices are to send data via ultrasound, researchers may just need to make sure that the data is encrypted. Fortunately, a few years ago, researchers figured out how to do this. It is safe to think that the bandwidth will still be fast enough if all the data is also encrypted.
The researchers then want to test how these devices transmit data across multiple layers of organs and different types of tissue. This is a preliminary step before testing them on living animals and possibly on humans.