Ambient backscatter is a revolutionary but less known communication technology that holds much promise in many sectors including healthcare.

Miniaturized, low-powered devices can be used to improve communications, integrate Internet-of-Things (IoT) devices with advanced sensor technologies, and reduce energy consumption. Miniature embeddable devices and on-body sensors are just some of the use cases of backscatter technology, and it is really interesting to examine how they can improve the healthcare industry.

What is ambient backscatter?

Ambient backscatter is a cutting-edge electromagnetic technology that repurposes existing radio frequency signals emitted by TV, mobile phone signals and WiFi to allow connected objects to communicate with each other.

Since these signals are already emitted by other devices, ambient backscatter devices do not need any kind of battery or energy source, addressing many issues with energy consumption for low-power communication systems such as sensors.

They’re, quite literally, self-sustaining gizmos.

In a nutshell, it is an innovative way to harvest and make full use of the cellular signals that are already around us. These signals are picked up and part of them can be selectively reflected or absorbed to create a pulsating signal. A series of one-or-zero signals is emitted (i.e. either by absorbing or reflecting the original radio frequency), that can be modulated to create defined patters used for (say) sending text messages.

Ambient backscatter can be used to solve the many issues with wires or batteries necessary to power up many IoT devices. Small ambient backscatter transmitters and receivers can be incorporated as components of devices, allowing isolated use and efficient utilization of radio resources.

Smart Hospitals and Clinics

RF-powered, backscatter-using devices can be smaller, more compact, or directly embedded inside walls or interspaces as a part of modern smart structural building. Especially when smart power grids are built, backscatter transmitters can be the solution to reduce the amount of impractical wires and batteries that are otherwise necessary to provide energy to many devices. An issue that is even more dominant ins complex structures, such as hospitals and clinics. (Read How Big Data Can Revolutionize Home Healthcare.)

Backscatter-powered sensors can also communicate much more easily and conveniently, and can be consistently incorporated in buildings with no fear of getting in the way of other machinery (such as MRI or CT scanners). (Read The 5 Most Amazing AI Advances in Health Care.)

The various self-sustaining sensors could be used to measure various indicators on a permanent basis, such as oxygen level, temperature, humidity, and much more. They can feed information in real-time to both technicians and staff as well as other machines to which they are connected (think of hyperbaric chambers, for example.

Ambient backscatter communications can be implemented at the hospital level to ensure smarter resource management. Communication between wards and the entire process of recording and updating patient registries and electronic health records can be significantly expedited.

Intelligent patient monitoring and evaluation

The miniaturized nature of ambient backscatter transmitters allows them to be embedded on fabric and body patches. They can be installed inside advanced devices that are beyond other technologies such as WiFi or Bluetooth. Epidermal patch sensors and smart contact lens are just some examples.

Smart, powerless on-body sensors can be used to constantly monitor the health of a patient in real-time, giving access to health care personnel to a live overview of all patient vitals. There’s no need to explain how useful can be a self-sustaining sensor to relieve nurses and staff from the burden of keeping a vigilant eye on those patients who need constant attention.

The same sensors can also provide valuable information and insights on patient conditions to lab analysts, improving their efficiency and reducing the waste associated with unnecessary tests.

On-body sensors can also be used to measure vital parameters on the spot during doctor’s visits. The time to react to emergencies can be drastically cut, allowing for more prompt responses, reduced risk of mistakes, higher survival chances and, ultimately, better health outcomes.

Current limits of ambient backscatter technology

Although promising, this technology is still in the early phase. Several challenges need to be addressed before it can be used in practice, especially in a delicate sector such as the healthcare one. In particular, some limits still need to be overcome:

Security

Health data is among the most sensitive types of personal information that can be handled today. Albeit the chances of eavesdropping during communication between backscatter transmitters and receivers is somewhat negligible, no real study has ever addressed this potential issue.

Safety

Backscatter communication is safe enough for in-body an on-body implants. However, no sufficient studies have evaluated its safety on living creatures. Some additional research may be required to establish the long-term durability and usability of these devices on living beings.

Reliability

Backscatter sensors have been tested only under certain conditions so far. For example, they work well when they’re static, but in a real-life healthcare environment, it is highly probable they will need to move around (such as they’re embedded inside clothes). The more dynamic conditions in which they should ultimately be used, such as when channel frequencies shift frequently, may require them to be modified before they’re fully reliable.

Speed

A particularly important characteristic of a sensor used for health purposes, is its ability to provide information in real-time. Current backscatter communicators are still somewhat rudimental, and present a certain degree of latency that still needs to be addressed.

Final Thoughts

Backscatter technology allows devices to communicate over large enough distances at a really affordable cost. Although those devices still need to be improved, tested and refined before they can be properly employed, their potential is quite evident.

They also solve many energy problem issues associated with other technologies, showing an incredible potential and many applications in the healthcare field.