The “tricorder” diagnostic tool in the Star Trek series is frequently referred to as the future of medicine. It has even formed the basis for a multi-million-dollar technology competition. But here’s a thought to consider; what if the tricorder isn’t reading biometric data remotely by scanning the body, but rather is communicating with sensors systems implanted in the patient? How might that work?

Scientists at the Fraunhofer Institute for Biomedical Engineering (IBMT) have developed a system that could make this possible, along with other more down-to-earth applications. The key problem for smart implants is getting power to them. Radio frequency (RF) and electromagnetic induction fields have limitations and risks, including possible tissue damage. As we’ve written before, ultrasound provides a safe way to transmit energy to an implanted device. It has the added benefit of creating a bidirectional transmission channel for data.

The IBMT researchers have created a demonstration device that can include a battery if needed that can be recharged using ultrasound at levels well below regulatory limits. This can be used to create smart implants that can support or replace the normal operation of body systems, from pacemakers to regulate heart rhythm to retinal implants to restore vision. And unlike some other remote power solutions, the implant can contain a transceiver so that it can send data about its operation as well as information collected from biosensors.

Maybe this new approach to powering and communicating with implants will bring the science fiction tricorder one step closer to reality.