R&D Round Up for October 2011

E-mail Melanie Martella

This month, the research and developments news that caught my eye includes a wearable antenna that can withstand being squished, bent, washed and generally abused; a technique for achieving 3D viewing for endoscopes; and a smart Petri dish.

A Wearable Antenna
In the world of search and rescue, the faster you can find the person in trouble, the better. Which is where Finnish company Patria—working with the Tempere University of Technology, and with help from the European Space Agency—comes in. The company has created a wearable antenna that can be squished, washed, and abused and that's been designed to work with the Cospas-Sarsat worldwide search and rescue satellite system. Although the antennas are palm-of-the-hand sized they still work well with the low frequencies (406 MHz) that the search and rescue system uses. In practical terms, this means that the antenna can be built into life vests (without taking up the entirety of the vest) so that when the vest's emergency beacon is activated, the Cospas-Sarsat system can quickly locate it. In field trials, the lucky volunteer lost at sea while wearing such a life vest was located within minutes. Of course, that doesn't mean that rescuers can get to the rescuee in minutes, but it does alert them quickly that there is someone in distress and tell them where to find them. Nifty.

3D Imaging for Endoscopes
One of the challenges presented by using endoscopes—those snake-like instruments used to view inside the human body—is making sense of what you see. Sometimes what you need is 3D information to identify and avoid important blood vessels, for instance, and up until now, to do this you needed to use endoscopes with special 3D optics. Unfortunately, the resolution wasn't great. Researchers from the Fraunhofer Institute for Microelectronic Circuits and Systems (IMS) have now developed a stereoscopic image sensor for endoscopes that provides clear, detailed 3D images to the medical professional using it. The researchers used a CMOS image sensor and placed a cylindrical microlens in front of each set of two vertical lines of photosensors. A superimposed lens with two apertures is then used to focus the light onto the microlenses. The end result is that this lens and microlens combination provides the CMOS sensor with two sets of image data, which are processed separately and then either projected on the screen or viewed using polarized glasses. The resulting endoscope is a mere 10 mm in diameter.

Adding Smarts to the Petri Dish
The humble Petri dish, that shallow cylindrical lidded dish so useful for culturing cells, has gotten a makeover. Engineers at the California Institute of Technology have shrunk it down, popped a commercially available image sensor chip into it, and then attached a smart phone (acting as a light source) and some Lego to create a prototype lens-free microscopy imaging platform. If it seems like a lot of work to watch bacteria grow, consider the fact that the platform enables researchers to monitor cell growth in real time and without having to remove the device (named the ePetri) from its incubator. So, better data, more data, automation of a labor-intensive task, and reduced risk of contamination. Not too shabby, right?