Hackaday Links: January 5, 2020

It looks like the third decade of the 21st century is off to a bit of a weird start, at least in the middle of the United States. There, for the past several weeks, mysterious squads of multicopters have taken to the night sky for reasons unknown. Witnesses on the ground report seeing both solo aircraft and packs of them, mostly just hovering in the night sky. In mid-December when the nightly airshow started, the drones seemed to be moving in a grid-search pattern, but that seems to have changed since then. These are not racing drones, nor are they DJI Mavics; witnesses report them to be 6′ (2 meters) in diameter and capable of staying aloft for 90 minutes. These are serious professional machines, not kiddies on a lark. So far, none of the usual government entities have taken responsibility for the flights, so speculation is all anyone has as to their nature. We’d like to imagine someone from our community will get out there with radio direction finding gear to locate the operators and get some answers.

We all know that water and electricity don’t mix terribly well, but thanks to the seminal work of White, Pinkman et al (2009), we also know that magnets and hard drives are a bad combination. But that didn’t stop Luigo Rizzo from using a magnet to recover data from a hard drive. He reports that the SATA drive had been in continuous use for more than 11 years when it failed to recover after a power outage. The spindle would turn but the heads wouldn’t move, despite several rounds of percussive maintenance. Reasoning that the moving coil head mechanism might need a magnetic jump-start, he probed the hard drive case with a magnetic parts holder until the head started moving again. He was then able to recover the data and retire the drive. Seems like a great tip to file away for a bad day.

It seems like we’re getting closer to a Star Trek future every day. No, we probably won’t get warp drives or transporters anytime soon, and if we’re lucky velour tunics and Spandex unitards won’t be making a fashion statement either. But we may get something like Dr. McCoy’s medical scanner thanks to work out of MIT using lasers to conduct a non-contact medical ultrasound study. Ultrasound exams usually require a transducer to send sound waves into the body and pick up the echoes from different structures, with the sound coupled to the body through an impedance-matching gel. The non-contact method uses pulsed IR lasers to penetrate the skin and interact with blood vessels. The pulses rapidly heat and expand the blood vessels, effectively turning them into ultrasonic transducers. The sound waves bounce off of other structures and head back to the surface, where they cause vibrations that can be detected by a second laser that’s essentially a sophisticated motion sensor. There’s still plenty of work to do to refine the technique, but it’s an exciting development in medical imaging.

And finally, it may actually be that the future is less Star Trek more WALL-E in the unlikely event that Segway’s new S-Pod personal vehicle becomes popular. The two-wheel self-balancing personal mobility device is somewhat like a sitting Segway, except that instead of leaning to steer it, the operator uses a joystick. Said to be inspired by the decidedly not Tyrannosaurus rex-proof “Gyrosphere” from Jurassic World, the vehicle tops out at 24 miles per hour (39 km/h). We’re not sure what potential market for these things would need performance like that – it seems a bit fast for the getting around the supermarket and a bit slow for keeping up with city traffic. So it’s a little puzzling, although it’s clearly easier to fully automate than a stand-up Segway.

Tomography Through An Infinite Grid Of Resistors

One of the vast untapped potentials of medicine is the access to imaging equipment. A billion people have difficulty getting access to an x-ray, and that says nothing about access to MRIs or CAT scans. Over the past few years, [Jean Rintoul] has been working on a low-cost way to image the inside of a human body using nothing more than a few electrodes. It can be done cheaply and easily, and it’s one of the most innovative ways of bringing medical imaging to the masses. Now, this is a crowdfunding project, aiming to provide safe, accessible medical imaging to everyone.

It’s called Spectra, and uses electrical impedance tomography to image the inside of a chest cavity, the dielectric spectrum of a bone, or the interior of a strawberry. Spectra does this by wrapping an electrode around a part of the body and sending out small AC currents. These small currents are reconstructed using tomographic techniques, imaging a cross-section of a body.

[Jean] gave a talk about Spectra at last year’s Hackaday Superconference, and if you want to look at the forefront of affordable medical technology, you needn’t look any further. Simply by sending an AC wave of around 10kHz through a body, software can reconstruct the internals. Everything from lung volume to muscle and fat mass to cancers can be detected with this equipment. You still need a tech or MD to interpret the data, but this is a great way to bring medical imaging technology to the people who need it.

Right now, the Spectra is up on Crowd Supply, with a board that can be configured to use 32 electrodes. Measurements are taken at 160,000 samples/sec, and these samples have 16-bit resolution. This is just the acquisition hardware, though, but the software to do tomographic reconstruction is open source and also readily available.

In terms of bringing medical imaging to the masses, this is a very impressive piece of work, and is probably the project from last year’s Hackaday Prize that has the best chance of changing the world.

Towards Open Biomedical Imaging

We live in a world where anyone can build a CT machine. Yes, anyone. It’s made of laser-cut plywood and it looks like a Stargate. Anyone can build an MRI machine. Of course, these machines aren’t really good enough for medical diagnosis, or good enough to image anything that’s alive for that matter. This project for the Hackaday Prize is something else, though. It’s biomedical imaging put into a package that is just good enough to image your lungs while they’re still in your body.

The idea behind Spectra is to attach two electrodes to the body (a chest cavity, your gut, or a simulator that’s basically a towel wrapped around the inside of a beaker). One of these electrodes emits an AC signal, and the second electrode measures the impedance and phase. Next, move the electrodes and measure again. Do this a few times, and you’ll be able to perform a tomographic reconstruction of the inside of a chest cavity (or beaker simulator).

Hardware-wise, Spectra uses more than two electrodes, thirty-two on the biggest version built so far. All of these electrodes are hooked up to a PCB that’s just under 2″ square, and everything is measured with 16-bit resolution at a 160 kSPS sample rate. To image something, each electrode sends out an AC current. Different tissues have different resistances, and the path taken through the body will have different outputs. After doing this through many electrodes, you can use the usual tomographic techniques to ‘see’ inside the body.

This is a remarkably inexpensive way to image the interior of the human body. No, it doesn’t have the same resolution as an MRI, but then again you don’t need superconducting electromagnets either. We’re really excited to see where this project will go, and we’re looking forward to the inevitable project updates.