Researchers in the UK have unveiled a low-cost ultrasound scanner that can be plugged into any computer or laptop to reveal vital information about the unborn child.

      The hand-held USB device, which is roughly the size of a computer mouse, costs just $65 to make – a far cry from most machines which can cost more than $300,000.

      “At the moment ultrasound machines tend to be very expensive and very large pieces of equipment that can only really be afforded in a hospital setting and mainly in the developed world,” Newcastle University researcher Jeff Neasham told Al Jazeera.

      “I was very interested in the challenge of whether we can produce a useful ultrasound imaging capability at a much lower cost.”

      The United Nations estimates that more than 250,000 women die each year from complications during pregnancy or childbirth. Almost all of them – 99 per cent – are in developing countries. In many cases, these could have been prevented if the women had had access to simple equipment like an ultrasound scanner.

      “Even simple imaging technology would allow us to diagnose things like breech birth or multiple births – straightforward complications in birth. Having the ability to identify these problems can make a real difference,” Neasham said.

      To make the device as cheap as possible the researchers have moved much of the complexity into the PC. Instead of using an array of scanners – as found in more expensive models – the device has just one.

      This is moved manually over the area being scanned. A computer then does most of the work in producing the image. The researchers borrowed techniques from sonar signal processing to achieve the result.

      Despite producing poorer quality images than much more expensive machines, images from the low-cost scanner are still good enough for clinical use. The researchers are continuing to develop the device, enhancing its signal-to-noise ratio and contrast settings through improvements in circuitry, software and transducer construction.

      “I’ve been overwhelmed by response from all over the world. We have got quite a number of serious enquiries from people wanting to commercialise the technology, and we’ve a bit of a daunting task ahead of us to sift through them all and work out who is going to be the best option,” Neasham said.