Hampton, VA —From Mars to your mom, NASA technology lands everywhere. While attempting to perfect a device that measures airflow over wings, Allan Zukerwar, of NASA's Langley Research Center, found himself with a new and unlikely career direction: perinatal care.
He had been developing a piezoelectric device that, when placed on airplane wings, measures drag and lift. Typically hard, piezoelectric materials produce an electric charge when subjected to pressure. But due to their rigidity and the complex contour of the wing's surface, his trials were not very successful until the discovery of a flexible polymer film that also maintained piezoelectric properties. Zukerwar found that when nickel-coated polyvinylidenedifloride (PVF²) is subjected to pressures produced during flight simulations, the electric charge created can be transferred into electronic drag and lift data.
Concurrently, a doctor on a remote Indian reservation was developing a fetal heart monitor from a hard ceramic material and was encountering similar application problems. When the doctor contacted NASA's Technology Commercialization Program Office, the request landed on Zukerwar's desk. He simply made one suggestion; Try PVF².
The technology found a perfect fit on pregnant abdomen contours due to its flexible qualities-which also made it comfortable to wear. And it's non-invasive. The device only listens to and records the pressure created by a beating fetal heart, unlike the more common ultrasound, which emits sound waves. The device can literally be worn all day, without projecting any energy into the womb.
Pending FDA approval, the device could be a helpful housecall for women in remote locations, or for those with late term and difficult pregnancies that can require screening twice a week, or even daily.
"Instead of having patients travel to where the technology is, the technology travels to the patients," says Kevin Gomez, in charge of the monitor's clinical testing at Atlanta Perinatal Associates (Atlanta, GA).
The prototype was built in conjunction with Veatronics Inc. (Charlotte, NC), and production is still in the early stages. Eventually, moms-to-be will hook the monitor up to a home computer and send their fetus' data electronically to a doctor over the Internet. An additional benefit: the fetuses will love getting an early start on all that web surfing.