Future cyborgs might not be creatures connected with wires and radio signals, but with sonar.

At the University at Buffalo, Tommaso Melodia, an associate professor of electrical engineering, is exploring the use of sound waves in place of electromagnetic signals to network devices inside the human body.

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Sound waves, in the form of sonar, have a few advantages over Wi-Fi signals and wires.

Wires of course, need to be installed, have to snake through the body and can be sites of irritation and infection. Radio signals are energy-intensive, and don’t transmit well through the water and tissue our bodies are made of. Radio waves also heat things up in their vicinity — not as much as a microwave oven, but enough that lots of devices sending information could perceptibly increase body temperature, at least locally.

Sound waves, on the other hand, travel easily through water and don’t bring up any of the concerns radio frequencies do. They also have a long track record of working well. Not only have navies used sonar for decades, but ultrasound has proven a valuable and perfectly safe tool for imaging (as many expectant parents know).

Melodia plan to use sound to transmit data, just like radio waves do, and he has a $449,000 National Science Foundation grant to do it.

He sees application in areas like managing diabetes, where blood glucose monitors and implanted insulin pumps, or oxygen sensors and pacemakers communicate with each other.

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In the first case the glucose monitor might tell a pump when the insulin is needed; a pacemaker could be told when to adjust for more rigorous exercise.

There isn’t a device on the horizon yet. Melodia’s research will focus on laying the groundwork. That involves encoding the information into sound waves, designing the networking protocols, and accounting for interference. He also wants to get a testing apparatus set up – a simulated human body, essentially – to test how these networks might function.

Credit: University at Buffalo