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Body may be next frontier for wireless technology

The body is roughly 60 percent water which may make ultrasonic sensors a more efficient way to share information.


Published June 6, 2013

“We are really just scratching the surface of what’s possible. There are countless potential applications.”
Tommaso Melodia, associate professor
Department of Electrical Engineering

The military for decades has used sonar for underwater communication.

Now, UB researchers are developing a miniaturized version of the same technology to be applied inside the human body to treat diseases such as diabetes and heart failure in real time.

The advancement relies on sensors that use ultrasounds—the same inaudible sound waves used by the navy for sonar and doctors for sonograms—to wirelessly share information between medical devices implanted in or worn by people.

“This is a biomedical advancement that could revolutionize the way we care for people suffering from the major diseases of our time,” says Tommaso Melodia, associate professor of electrical engineering.

Melodia’s research, “Towards Ultrasonic Networking for Implantable Biomedical Device,” is supported by a five-year, $449,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER grant. The CAREER award is the foundation’s most prestigious for young investigators.

The idea of creating a network of wireless body sensors, also called a “body area network,” is not new. Development of the technology began roughly 10 years ago.

But most work has focused on linking sensors together via electromagnetic radio frequency waves—the same type used in cellular phones, GPS units and other common wireless devices.

Radio waves can be effective, but they have drawbacks, such as the heat they generate. Also, because radio waves propagate poorly through skin, muscle and other body tissue, they require relatively large amounts of energy, Melodia says.

Ultrasounds may be a more efficient way to share information, he explains, because roughly 65 percent of the body is composed of water. This suggests that medical devices, such as a pacemaker and an instrument that measures blood oxygen levels, could communicate more effectively via ultrasounds compared to radio waves.

“Think of how the Navy uses sonar to communicate between submarines and detect enemy ships,” Melodia notes. “It’s the same principle, only applied to ultrasonic sensors that are small enough to work together inside the human body and more effectively help treat diseases.”

Another example involves connecting blood-glucose sensors with implantable insulin pumps. The sensors would monitor the blood and regulate, through the pumps, the dosage of insulin as needed in real time.

“We are really just scratching the surface of what’s possible. There are countless potential applications,” he says.

Melodia will use the NSF grant to do more modeling and conduct experiments with ultrasonic, wireless body-sensor networks. The grant will support UB PhD student G. Enrico Santagati, who already has contributed significantly to the project, as well as UB undergraduate students.

The research will address such issues as how to:

  • design transmission schemes to accurately relay information between sensors without causing body tissue to overheat
  • design networking protocols specialized for intra-body sensors
  • model ultrasonic interference
  • accurately simulate ultrasonic networks
  • design the first existing reconfigurable testbed for experimental evaluation of ultrasonic networks

Melodia is a member of the Signals, Communications and Networking Research Group in UB’s Department of Electrical Engineering, School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. The group carries out research in wireless communications and networking, cognitive radios, extreme environment (i.e., underwater, underground) communications, secure communications, data hiding, information theory and coding, adaptive signal processing, compressed sensing, multimedia systems, magnetic resonance imaging and radar systems.

Other members of the group include professors Stella N. Batalama, Adly T. Fam, Dimitris A. Pados and Mehrdad Soumekh; associate professors Michael Langberg, Weifeng Su and Leslie Ying; and assistant professors Nicholas Mastronarde, Gesualdo Scutari, Zhi Sun and Josep M. Jornet.