The iPhone Ultrasound Machine

Butterfly iQ Is a Portable Imaging Device

Smartphones continue to seep into previously unrelated industries. Now they’re being used to power medical equipment.

Last week, Butterfly Network, a start-up from Connecticut, launched an iPhone-powered ultrasound device that has been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The scanner, called Butterfly iQ, is about the size of an electric razor and relies on an iPhone screen to show ultrasound images.

It’s an impressive repurposing of a smartphone display, bringing down the cost of complicated medical equipment to an affordable level. The creator of the device, Jonathan Rothberg, has a track record of developing innovative and disruptive medical-related products — he helped ignite a revolution in DNA sequencing with low-cost methods. His vision for the Butterfly iQ is to shake up the market for ultrasound scanners.

This is a big market to disrupt. Ultrasound scanners have become ubiquitous, used by medical practitioners around the world to look inside the body. Usually, ultrasound machines are large enough that they need to be transported on a cart and require several attachments. Existing devices, including those made by General Electric, Philips and Fujifilm, use piezoelectric crystals to send sound waves into the body to create images. Butterfly Network’s solution is to replace these with a silicon chip. Instead of vibrating crystals, Butterfly iQ uses “capacitive micro-machined ultrasound transducers”, tiny ultrasonic emitters layered on a semiconductor chip a little larger than a postage stamp. This allows the company to cut manufacturing costs. The new design also allows a single sensor to replace the multiple wands used on traditional ultrasound devices.

Butterfly Network plans to start selling its scanner by the end of 2017 for less than $2,000, about a third of the price of other handheld systems and a fraction of the price of high-end ultrasound scanners, which can cross the $100,000 mark. Butterfly iQ has been approved by the FDA for 13 different clinical applications. The device is considered licensed medical equipment and can only be purchased by licensed practitioners or healthcare facilities. For now, at least in the US, this isn’t going to be a common smartphone accessory.

The company says it wants to improve the product by combining it with artificial intelligence software, which would enable a novice operator to use the scanner by automatically collecting the necessary images and, furthermore, interpreting them. By 2018, Butterfly Network says its software will let users automatically calculate how much blood a heart is pumping, or detect problems like aortic aneurysms.

Butterfly Network isn’t the only company to exploit the potential of smart devices for ultrasound equipment. Recently, a South Korean company called Healcerion won FDA approval for an ultrasound transducer powered by software running on a smartphone or tablet. And in 2011, US company Mobisante released a similar product, dubbed MobiUS, that plugged into a smartphone. However, the scanner came with a price tag of about $7,500 and was only sold directly to medical professionals.

The growing cross-pollination between professional medical equipment and smartphones is another example of the use of mobile devices in enterprises, and the regulatory approval of this ultrasound scanner is an encouraging sign that the mobile industry is getting a greater level of respect.