A recent regulatory decision from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) suggests new long-term possibilities for making real-time imaging of the heart more reliable and totally risk-free.

The FCC last month issued guidelines enabling the development of new products incorporating ultra-wideband (UWB) radio frequency in what one of its staff members referred to as a radar-like modality. The commission statement describing the new guidelines lists a variety of potential industrial applications for this system, but it also includes the development of medical imaging systems based on the new UWB approval.

The industrial uses listed include ground penetrating radar systems, wall and through-wall imaging systems, surveillance and vehicular radar devices and communications and measurement systems.

Additionally, the new UWB medical systems described include imaging devices "operated by a licensed health care practitioner" that could be used "to 'see' inside the body of a person or animal," according to the FCC statement.

An important application for use of the UWB frequency could be heart monitoring, according to an FCC staff member who helped to write the new regulation and provided information to The BBI Newsletter's sister publication, Medical Device Daily, "on background." This application "was hinted at" by a medical device manufacturer "four or five years ago and I latched onto this," the FCC source said. "This would actually allow visualizing what the heart is doing," he added. He went on to call the potential system "high-resolution imaging radar," describing it as able to offer "much more accurate placement than you normally run across" and requiring no dyes or other imaging agents for its application.

Besides offering a noninvasive approach, the new bandwidth inherently would be extremely safe since it is designated at powers that do not interfere with other frequencies. One objection previously raised to the UWB use is potential interference with frequencies such as those used in global positioning systems, but the FCC contends there is little possibility of this happening.

"UWB devices operate by employing very narrow or short-duration pulses that result in very large or wideband transmission bandwidths," according to the FCC statement. It added, "With appropriate technical standards, UWB devices can operate using spectrum occupied by existing radio services without causing interference, thereby permitting scarce spectrum resources to be used more efficiently." And any reports of interference with other systems by UWB technology would result in quick action by the FCC, the commission's statement said.

Specifically, medical systems must be operated in the frequency band 3.1 GHz-10.6 GHz. And the application of UWB frequencies in imaging systems would be extremely safe since requiring only about "one two-hundredths of the power level we permit in a personal computer," according to the FCC source. He called this "not anywhere close to being a radiation hazard." Besides citing the noninvasiveness of UWB frequencies, he noted the ability of such systems to work in real-time, an important advantage for instance in capturing the activity of the heart.

The new guidelines are presented as a First Report and Order, meaning that they provide "a cautious first step" in their implementation, since there is no "production UWB equipment available and there is little operational experience with the impact of UWB on other radio services," according to the FCC. The importance of this approach is that it allows the commission to review the impact of the guidelines over the next six to 12 months and make any necessary changes. "We'll revisit what's going on and, based on what we determine, either will propose expanded use [of UWB], relax the standards, tighten the standards or keep them the same," according to the FCC source. "The approach we're taking is extremely conservative."

He also noted that while the UWB bandwidth has been used by governmental agencies, primarily for military work, there is little predicate equipment available in production on which to base the development of new devices.

The new effort in UWB imaging technology, whether industrial or purely medical, will also be coordinated with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), he noted. "At the request of NTIA, the FCC will notify or coordinate with NTIA prior to the operation of all imaging systems," according to the FCC statement.

Some of the industrial uses of UWB-based technology include detecting objects buried in the ground, detecting objects inside a wall — such as in concrete or the wall of a mine — detecting persons or objects on the other side of a wall, or providing a type of security fence which detects the presence of an intruding person or object. Other uses extend to high-speed home and business networking devices or for operation of directional antennas on a vehicle in order, for instance, to avoid collision, provide "improved airbag activation [or for] suspension systems that better respond to road conditions."