Star Trek's Tricorder May Be Here Sooner Than You Think

A new medical device that works much like a primitive version of Star Trek's tricorder could allow medics to check patients' vital signs from up to forty feet away, greatly shortening triage time at disaster sites and potentially saving countless lives.

The Standoff Patient Triage Tool (SPTT), developed by the Science and Technology Directorate in the Department of Homeland Security, uses lasers that can chart vibrations in the human skull and chest and then calculate a patient's pulse, body temperature and respiration from that data. Similar technology has already been applied to airplanes, acoustic speakers, and landmine detectors.

Although the device could theoretically be used in any setting, it is at disaster sites that its developers see the biggest application. The triage process, in which emergency responders assess the severity of patients' injuries and prioritizes who needs care first, can take three to five minutes per person using current methods. The SPTT, on the other hand, could do the job in only thirty seconds per person. That amount of time saved could make a huge difference in life-or-death situations.

Star Trek's Tricorder May Be Here Sooner Than You Think

Greg Price, the director of S&T's Tech Solutions office, which is handling the project, also pointed to a more subtle advantage of the SPTT:

"Human nature is to pay attention to the person who is screaming and bleeding, but someone else with a less obvious internal injury may need to be the first priority. In the case of large-scale triage, it is not always the squeaky wheel that needs the grease. The SPTT may someday help first responders hear a lot more from their patients, and much more quickly."

From an engineering standpoint, the ultimate goal is to make a device that's roughly the size of a legal notebook. To do that would require making strides in stabilization technology, as an SPTT that small would too easily be affected by the paramedic's own shaking hands. Developers will continue working on this as they begin field tests for the current model in the fall of this year.

And, though the medical community is largely excited by the potential of the SPTT, it still has fundamental shortcomings. The device still can't measure blood pressure or oxygen saturation, two other vital signs key to the triage process.

Despite the device's current drawbacks, I think we can safely say that, like the communicator before it, the tricorder has officially crossed over from Star Trek into real life. Now if only scientists could get to work on that transparent aluminum I keep hearing such good things about.

[Scientific American's 60-Second Science]