Many robotic arms make light work

David Lloyd_crop

Dr David Lloyd is a Clinical Research Fellow at King’s College London and working as part of the iFIND project. The overall aim of the intelligent Fetal Imaging and Diagnosis project is to combine innovative technologies into a clinical ultrasound system that will lead to a radical change in the way fetal screening is performed.

One of the goals of the iFIND project is to produce an antenatal screening system that uses multiple ultrasound probes at the same time. There are lots of potential advantages to this – for example, we could combine the images from two probes to see more of the baby at once, or provide a more detailed picture of one part of the baby. With iFIND, our hope is to have several separate 3D ultrasound probes working simultaneously, giving us the opportunity to see more of the baby, in more detail, than ever before.

The problem is, how do we control a number of ultrasound probes at the same time? I’ve yet to meet anyone who can scan with two probes at the same time, and several people trying to scan one patient sounds like a bit of a crowd! There is a solution though, and it’s something the team here at iFIND are working hard to develop: robotic arms.

Sounds pretty cool doesn’t it? Get robots to do the scans! But let’s stop and think about this for a minute. We need to make a robotic arm that can not just hold an ultrasound probe, but can twist, flex, rotate and extend, just like a human arm, to get all the views necessary to visualise the baby. Then we need to give it “eyes”: something to tell it not just what it is seeing now, but where and how to move to see other parts of the baby. It also needs to know exactly how hard to press, and we need to make sure it has thorough safety mechanisms built in. Perhaps it’s a tougher challenge than it sounds.

DavidJackie holding probes on phantom
David with Jackie Matthew, sonographer & research training fellow, each holding a probe to simultaneously scan a phantom fetus

However, as I’ve learnt, no problem is insurmountable for the team at iFIND, and indeed our dedicated robotics group are designing an arm that can do just that. The first step is to record in detail what humans do when they perform a scan, and that’s exactly what we do with our participants. Each dedicated iFIND ultrasound scan we perform records not only the imaging data, but also the exact position, force and torque (twisting force) of the ultrasound probe throughout the scan.

The video below shows an example: on the left, we can see how the sonographer is moving the ultrasound probe across the abdomen of one of our volunteers; the colours under the probe show how much pressure they applied to the skin. The right panel shows the ultrasound images so we know exactly what they could see at the time.


We hope to collect information from all 500 of our participants, and will use it to instruct the robotic arms how to perform the ultrasound scans automatically, just like a person would.

Another problem the team have to think about is far more simple, but perhaps just as important: aesthetics. The arms we design need to look and feel just as gentle and safe as we are designing them to be. So whilst we are collecting all the important data to help develop the technology, we are also learning from participants, just to ask how they would feel being scanned by a robotic arm rather than a person, and what we could do to make them more comfortable about the idea.

So: our goal is to produce a robotic arm that has the dexterity and sensitivity of a human being, knows how to perform a fetal ultrasound, well actually several of them, and doesn’t look scary.. And they also have to talk to each other.

Maybe we’ll leave that for another blog…

Read previous posts about the iFIND project written by David Lloyd.

Moving scenes

Dr David Lloyd is a Clinical Research Fellow at King’s College London and working as part of the iFIND project. The overall aim of the intelligent Fetal Imaging and Diagnosis project is to combine innovative technologies into a clinical ultrasound system that will lead to a radical change in the way fetal screening is performed.


One of the most important goals of the iFIND project is to build an “atlas” of the fetus: a comprehensive map of fetal anatomy at around 20 weeks gestation (when routine antenatal scans are performed). This means getting the best quality images that we can, from as many women as we can – but as I’m learning, taking pictures of a 20 week fetus while they’re still in the womb really isn’t that easy.

For one thing, they’re very (very) small. The fetal heart, for example, with all of its tiny chambers and valves, is only about 15mm long: less than the size of penny. Ultrasound technology – used in all routine antenatal scans in the UK – is actually fairly good at visualising these tiny structures. It uses very high frequency sound waves which are reflected back (“echo”) from the structures inside the body to produce an image. In fetal ultrasound, the images produced can be excellent; but unfortunately that’s not true for every patient. Ultrasound has to be able to “see” through the body to the parts of the baby we want to image, and that isn’t always easy. It will depend on the age of the baby, how they are lying in the womb, the size of the mother, and many other factors.

MRI, which uses a strong magnetic field and radio waves to produce images, isn’t so limited. It can see the structures inside the body regardless of whether there’s bone, muscle or fat in the way; and in some cases it can give us even more detailed images than ultrasound. Importantly, it is also one of the few imaging techniques that is safe to use in pregnancy. The problem? MRI isn’t great with small, moving targets – like we see in the fetus.

So that’s why we ask our iFIND volunteers to have both an ultrasound and an MRI scan. By combining the strengths of these two technologies, we hope to get the best of both worlds to produce the most accurate fetal atlas we can.

Of course though, even that isn’t quite so simple. Fetal movements – like twisting, rolling, stretching and kicking – are a particularly tricky problem, even when we use both technologies together .

Watch this MRI clip from one of our volunteers. Unfortunately there’s not much you can do when your patient decides to start breakdancing half way through a scan! At least, you’d think there wasn’t… but amazingly even that may not be an insurmountable problem. In the last few months I’ve been involved with some of the work of Bernhard Kainz and his colleagues, who have devised clever algorithms to automatically correct for small fetal movements during MRI and produce usable images.

These techniques show a huge amount of potential, and are an example of how the iFIND project is helping to generate exciting new technologies on its way to the ultimate goal: to improve the way we see developing babies in the womb.

Read previous posts about the iFIND project written by David Lloyd.

Boosting radiochemistry around Europe

Carlotta_profileCarlotta Taddei is a 2nd year PhD student in the Division of Imaging Sciences & Biomedical Engineering. Her research is about the development of radiopharmaceuticals and radiochemicals for medical diagnostics and research.  Here she talks about her involvement in an international collaboration and her secondment in Amsterdam.

I am part of a project called RADIOMI which is supported by the Marie-Curie Action Innovative Training Networks and has the goal to provide training to produce new talent and innovation in radiochemistry for molecular imaging. The emphasis of this network is focused on training scientists to develop and carry-out innovative radiolabeling with short half-life positron emitting isotopes such as Fluorine-18, Carbon-11 and Nitrogen-13. These novel and improved methodologies will be trialed in the synthesis of known and new radiotracers, such as small molecules, peptides and libraries of biologically active labelled compounds.

RADIOMI logoThe project combines the expertise of leading scientists in radiochemistry around Europe – the University of Oxford, King’s College London, University of Turku, VU University Medical Center Amsterdam, University Claude Bernard Lyon, Medical & Health Science Center Debrecen, CIC BiomaGUNE San Sebastian, Advanced Accelerator Applications and several other associate partners, such as GE Healthcare, Advion, Synthra GmbH and BV Cyclotron VU.

Currently I am part of a group of 15 fellows, 13 Early Stage Researchers and 2 Experienced Researchers. We gather together with our supervisors, advisory board and associate partners every 6 months. During these international meetings we present our individual reports and receive valuable feedback on the ongoing research and suggestions for our future work. So far, there have already been 3 RADIOMI Schools and International meetings, with additional courses at the partner universities. Next meeting will be in November 2015 at CIC BiomaGUNE San Sebastian in Spain with the distinguished international Molecular Imaging Workshop 2015.

Aleksandra Pekosak (ESR at VUmc), Ulrike Filp (ESR at VUmc) Anna Kirjavainen (ER at KCL) and Carlotta Taddei (ESR at KCL) at St Thomas' Hospital.
Aleksandra Pekosak (ESR at VUmc), Ulrike Filp (ESR at VUmc) Anna Kirjavainen (ER at KCL) and Carlotta Taddei (ESR at KCL) at St Thomas’ Hospital.

As part of the RADIOMI project, the ESR fellows have to carry out research projects in collaboration with the other RADIOMI partner universities, so-called secondments. Our department hosted Aleksandra Pekosak and Ulrike Filp, two ESR RADIOMI fellows from VUmc Amsterdam, during June 2015. We carried out a small research project on carbon-11 chemistry related to our PhD topic. This work continued at VUmc during my secondment period there in August 2015.

Carlotta_labBefore I arrived in Amsterdam, I was looking forward to carrying out radiochemistry work in a different institution to gain more skills in this field. Personally I think it was a very interesting and fruitful experience. Planning and performing radiochemistry work in a different radiochemistry centre having different rules was good training for me. Luckily we managed to obtain some good preliminary results on our research topics in order to continue our work at our corresponding institutions and strengthen the collaboration between the two partner universities.

I really enjoyed this secondment because it gave me a better understanding of team-work and time-management which can be really useful skills in my research field. In the future I hope to have similar work experience to this and grow my international collaborations so that my research can have an impact in this fascinating field.