Tearing Down A Colonoscopy Pill Camera

Normally, colonoscopies are rather invasive affairs. Swallowing a small pill with a camera is much more amenable to a patient’s dignity and are seeing increasing usage in colon cancer screening. [Mike] acquired a pillcam from a relative who underwent the procedure and did a teardown to figure out how it works.

To get the video signal out of the body, the pillcam has two contacts that conduct the video signal through the body to stick-on contacts; It’s a more power efficient way of doing things versus a radio transmitter. After opening the plastic and metal capsule, [Mike] found three batteries and an impressively small circuit that contained an array of LEDs, a camera, and what might be a small MCU.

Taking a scope to the electronics in the pill, [Mike] found an impressively complex waveform that sends uncompressed image data to the receiver every few seconds. Although the camera was somewhat destroyed in the teardown, we’re pretty confident [Mike] could decode the image data if he had another… ‘sample.’

[Mike] says if you can ‘retrieve’ another one of these pill cameras, he’ll gladly accept any donations and look into the differences between different makes and models. Just make sure you sanitize it first. After the break you can see [Mike]’s teardown and the inevitable poop jokes in the comments. One last thing – if you’re over 50, doctors should be looking at your colon every 5 or 10 years. Get screened.


59 thoughts on “Tearing Down A Colonoscopy Pill Camera

      1. The camera is rather expensive, so it was not disposable when they started their use (or in some countries until a few years ago). It is not intended to substitute colonoscopy, it is a rather different exam with its own indications, by three main reasons:
        1. the preparation (that includes consuming large amounts of laxatives) to the colonoscopy is the same and it is the real inconvenience of doing the exam (if you did the exam you know what I am talking about).
        2. if one polipe is found in classical colonoscopy it can be removed and biopsied without further intervention. With the pill new preparation would be needed.
        3. The classical colonoscopy only looks easily at the descending and the transverse, but sometimes it is difficult to see the complete ascending colon. The pill passes through all them easily.

      1. He pulled apart the RECEIVER TOO ONLY NOT THE TRANSMITTER.

        That is not cool… The Transmitter is disposeable but the receiver is not. Opening medical equipment and returning it to normal use it not cool.
        Not cool at all!

      2. Yea, as someone with a family history of colon cancer and a father who is dealing (rather successfully, thankfully) with stage 4 colon cancer right now, I have to agree that this is NOT COOL AT ALL.

        Many, many, people will be relying on that unit to work correctly 100% of the time in order to detect any cancer they may have as early as possible. If even one person’s cancer is missed due to [Mike] breaking the seal on the unit then he, quite possibly, will have signed their death warrant.

        Survival rates drop DRAMATICALLY the later the cancer is detected. Early stage cancer can usually be effectively cured. Later stages can mean almost certain death within five years. Since most people only get checked once a decade, it only takes one missed chance at diagnosis to make the difference between stage 1 and stage 4 (For example, my dad skipped his age 50 exam. Considering that the stage 4 cancer they found at 60 years of age was, luckily, extremely slow progressing, it probably could have been found and easily cured had he gone in at 50).

        Lastly, to add to what Brian said at the end of his write-up, starting colon screening at 50 is for the average person. If you have blood relatives who have died of colon cancer, or may have died of colon cancer, START MUCH YOUNGER. Besides my father, I’ve had a cousin on his side die at 40 and a great aunt on my mom’s side die later in life. Personally, I had my first screening a couple years ago (I’m 32 right now) and will be going every 5 years from here on.

        For anyone worried about the actual process, don’t. Contrary to what it sounds like, it’s actually not that bad. Any competent medical facility will make sure you are completely unconscious throughout the whole procedure. The worst thing about the whole experience is the foul tasting fluid they make you drink large quantities of ahead of time in order to flush out your digestive tract.

        P.S. – Admins, please ignore the “Report Comment” that you’ve received for Phantom’s post above. I hit that link by mistake when I meant to hit the “Reply” link.

  1. Nice!
    What I’d do now would be making the corresponding video emitter,and injecting random pictures during examination to mess with your puzzled doctor.
    “Wait, is that a theme park in your colon ?”

    1. I also would like to know how much one of these pills cost. They would probably not be very useful without the receiver/decoder portion, but maybe that part is hackable. I’ve dug a little on google and found a Yahoo Answers entry where a guy says his health insurance company was billed $2800. Another guy in chron’s forum told he was billed $2500. AFAIUI, this value also includes exams, doctor payment, etc, so I still have no precise information how much would the be the pill’s price. I’m guessing less than $80 to make, more than $800 to sell.

  2. i am surprised how you was able to get the camera.

    i decided to look on ebay and no pill cameras there so one had to snuck out of a hospital or a doctor had ordered an extra one.

    1. The “unknown” part above the transmitter coil in your photo’s looks like a reed-switch, which is also mentioned in this video. (so the pill can detect that it’s out of the package)

  3. Am I the only one who *really really hates* VIDEOs? The part where he was advertising his scope, or explaining how it works – it is pointless, and in text would be easy to skip. Video makes it impossible to (1) gather this information in a quiet place or (2) gather this information quickly. It saddens me to see that more and more news organizations, and now even tech blogs like hackaday have video-only content. Can it be mandated that a text write-up exists, or am I just simply outdated in my expectations of easily-seekable and easily-readable content?

    1. Sorry you don’t like vids but I’ve found it’s a much quicker way of getting lots of info out there than writing webpages, and I don’t have much time to do this stuff between ‘real’ work!

  4. I consumed one of these cameras a couple of years ago, and being a long time hacker, naturally inspected the output hoping to grab it for examination. Sadly, it escaped.

    While a pill camera is a bit more convenient than a colonoscopy, you still have to cleanse your bowel (which is not fun), and there is a non-trivial risk that the camera will get wedged in, requiring surgery for removal. The current cameras are not the equal of a proper colonoscopy, as the resolution is lower and it can’t back up to look more closely at suspicious spots. Plus, if anything looks abnormal, you’ll still have to get a colonoscopy for a biopsy.

    I had colon cancer in my late thirties, and have been getting annual colonoscopies for 15 years. The pill camera was used when there were indications of an issue in my small intestine, which did, indeed, show up in an image. Current pill camera technology doesn’t provide any usable location information. So, the next step involved specialized endoscopy through, uh, both ends, to locate the spot, biopsy it, and mark it with a metallic tattoo for location via CT scan and visually during surgery.

    Interestingly enough, I can no longer use pill cameras, as the risk is now too great that it will get lodged in the small intestine due to scar tissue from the surgery…

  5. I enjoyed the whole video objections to medical equipment use protocols aside. Just had my first colonoscopy 8 weeks ago. Waiting on biopsy results. Ive a vested interest in the info the video presented but could see how a minimal text writeup would be desirable as well. Overall, HAD does a good job covering diverse topics and I can see how throwing in a video only works in this case.

  6. Medical equipment companies like to invent proprietary image formats.

    It’s quite popular these days to provide patients with copies of X-Ray images on a CD-ROM with a standalone viewer. The images are in the DICOM format that may contain two or more views in a single file. There’s an open source DICOM program called Gingko CADx http://ginkgo-cadx.com/en/

    I wonder if the pillcam images are in DICOM format? The file name extension is .DCM

      1. The medical world says these days that it is better to not screen unless there’s an indicator, since it seems there is massive misdiagnosis and the ensuing treatment actually kills a fair amount of people.
        If you followed the news at all you’d know this.

  7. Interesting. I wanted to get my hands on one of these, but never got the chance. I had colon “problems” and the whole thing had to come out. So now, no risk of cancer for me!

    For those of you thinking somebody has to dig through their poo to get this, no. It’s more like water, LOTS of water. Dirty water, but still. The whole idea is there ARE NO solids in your stream.

    Also, as a side note, do get checked. Colon cancer runs in my family, and if my brother had just gotten an exam, it could have saved his life.

    Instead, he didn’t want to go through the “exam”, and by the time he realized he had a problem, it was too late. Kinda like John Wayne’s last movie, they’d have to “gut him like a fish”. He had cancer of just about everything by that time.

    So, get checked, it’s really not that bad.

    1. Actually the patient was only instructed to not eat for 12hrs and drink plenty of water. AFAIUI these are mainly for examining the middle bits that can’t be got to via either end. It was certainly not mainly water :-{

  8. Nice.

    What model was the fpga?

    Do you have data captures for us to decode? Would be nice to have a decoder/encoder/injector ready.

    So just before the second turn after the stomach, that’s when you’ll catch a flash of Tyler’s contribution to the film…

  9. Lodged in appendix maybe? Just possible.
    You’d think that they would add an RFID chip to these to aid location in the event that they didn’t exit the usual way.

    Good news is that these are essentially a solid nonbiodegradeable casing of plastic with the electronics inside so it is unlikely to cause a problem.

    1. Except you cannot undergo an MRI while you have one inside your body.
      Likely the unit passed out. They get completely encapsulated in feces so you cannot see them when eliminating solid waste.

  10. What I don’t get is why no-one has built an X-ray emitting capsule powered wirelessly like the Cool-X specifically for treating bowel cancer without the normal major surgery usually needed?

    It can’t be that hard, all that is needed is a way to keep the capsule in place and it could be treated at an earlier stage than currently possible.

    Its probably possible to modify the Cool-X so that it uses opposing crystals and ambient body heat to generate the required temperature changes.

    Email mandoline at cwgsy dot net if anyone wants to fund this.

  11. Anyone interested in one of those pillcams?
    It has expired its sterilization date on 2009, but it’s new (not used and still on the original package). Contact me if interested.

  12. Someone should develop a pill cam with a micro sd card(or ideally slightly smaller which shouldn’t be too difficult given that they can hold 500gb which is obviously not necessary in this case), no transmitterneeded, that the consumer could purchase for a reasonable price, use the camera, recover it, disassemble, remove and read sd card data, then email the data to an online diagnostic radiology service, thus bypassing the usual overhead associated with that type of imaging.

  13. If you would like one of the latest wireless units, I recovered and cleaned the one they just used on me.
    With regard to the receiver disassembly, he is obviously being hyper careful, the units themselves perform continuous self-tests, so if he had done anything to affect its performance or reliability, it would have been discovered before it was used on another patient.

  14. The newer units use field sequential color with RGBV LEDs. Apparently they can also do pulse oximetry as well (IR LED maybe?) to evaluate intestinal perfusion. Ironically the original patent circa 1978 mentioned this idea but at the time it wasn’t feasible due to the large size of the diodes and lack of microcontrollers.

  15. I have one I just recovered today from my scope on Monday. LEDs still flashing. Sure wish I could wire up a receiver to intercept the data; this would be a fantastic spy cam.

  16. I just want to turn mine into a necklace (most expensive one I have) that transmits live video to my phone or tablet! Built in strobe light source may not be needed. It is powered by 2 small button batteries and shows up as a bluetooth device on my phone – It may only be necessary to replace the batteries

  17. Hi, found a seller on the bay just now selling the flex + dual camera variant on its own if people want to experiment.
    It looks like the camera IC is actually common to laptop webcams as disassembled several here and its a glass BGA chip.
    Also as BigClive pointed out there’s some sort of one time activation code but if you have access to the PCB its likely possible to decode the output using an SDR and some signal processing.
    I’ve had some success with “glitching” devices to put them into manufacturer diagnostics mode which might then show some sort of image.

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