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US federal boffins say they are well on the way to developing a Star Trek style "tricorder", able to monitor a person's medical condition from 40 feet away.

The so-called Standoff Patient Triage Tool (SPTT) is described in glowing terms by the inhouse journal of the Department of Homeland Security's Science and Technology Directorate, S&T Snapshots. The DHS S&T boys are people who also intend to give the world the puke ray light-sabre and the lobster-beam scanner.

This time, it seems they're looking to help out "first responders" (US speak for emergency services, mostly) arriving at the scene of a major disaster, terrorist strike or similar. In such situations it's necessary to swiftly sort the living casualties by priority order for medical care - "triage", as they call it in the trade.

“We thought, ‘Boy, wouldn’t it be nice if a responder, fully clothed in an emergency suit, could have a technology to take vital signs quickly from 5 to 40 feet away?’” says Greg Price of DHS S&T.

Normally triage involves a time-consuming process of checking pulse, respiration etc. etc. by individual contact on each patient. Things aren't helped by the fact that some casualties - while in fact not in very serious trouble compared to others - may be screaming, bleeding or otherwise drawing attention to themselves while someone else is unobtrusively dying in the corner.

“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,” says Price. “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.”

The SPTT, which is to be "about the size of a legal notebook and as a thick as a ream of paper", works using laser doppler vibrometry and a camera to measure pulse, body temperature and muscle movements such as breathing. The DHS boffins believe it could get full vital-signs readings from a good 10 metres off provided it has line-of-sight to a suitable body part. It seems the carotid artery is best, but good readings have been obtained from all over the body - even from a foot.

According to S&T Snapshots, "Star Trek fans will recognize [the SPTT] for its resemblance to the medical diagnostic tool known as the tricorder ... Despite its promise, the SPTT is not quite as a sophisticated as the tricorder. For instance, the tricorder was able to comprehensively diagnose obscure diseases [and the SPTT can't] ... science fiction remains on the big screen for the moment."

But the still-quite-snazzy (if it works) SPTT will at least be moving out of the lab shortly. It's supposed to get some field trials with US paramedics this autumn. ®

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