Using ultrasound for verification: proof of legal age via handheld scanner
Using ultrasound for verification: proof of legal age via handheld scanner
Interview with Dr. Holger Hewener, Group Leader Software Development/System Integration, Fraunhofer Institute for Biomedical Engineering IBMT
Human trafficking is a global crime that often preys on underage persons and forces them into prostitution and forced labor. In most cases, people are smuggled across borders with fake passports. Scientists at the Fraunhofer IBMT have now developed a non-invasive, handheld smartphone-compatible scanner that uses ultrasound to determine whether a person has reached full legal age.
Dr. Holger Hewener, Head of the Software Development/System Integration Group, Fraunhofer Institute for Biomedical Engineering IBMT
In this interview with MEDICA-tradefair. com, Dr. Holger Hewener explains the objectives of the PRIMSA Initiative ("Prävention und Intervention bei Menschenhandel zum Zweck der sexuellen Ausbeutung", English: Prevention and Intervention of Human Trafficking for Sexual Exploitation), which prompted the development of the handheld scanner. He also describes the functions and challenges of the technology.
Dr. Hewener, could you briefly explain how this handheld scanner works?
Dr. Holger Hewener: The handheld scanner uses ultrasound technology that measures the presence of a growth plate in the wrist that hasn't sufficiently ossified in women until they reach the age of 18. That means we pass ultrasound waves through the wrist and measure the sound velocity of the ultrasound wave – the time it takes to pass through the wrist. This allows us to draw conclusions about the ossification state. It is a significant indication to determine the legal age of females. Unfortunately, in men, this process of ossification doesn't occur until age 19. That’s also why we are unable to detect the legal age of adult males until they have reached this particular age. Due to this gray area between ages 18 and 19, we are unable to verify underage victims in all cases.
The analysis of the growth plate is a process that is normally done by taking X-rays. Physicians have the option to determine a person’s age by using an ionizing process to examine bones and match them to a bone atlas. However, this X-ray process requires a court order since it is an invasive procedure. That’s why this test cannot be performed in a prompt and fast manner in reasonable suspicion cases. What’s more, there is a strong resistance to initiate the procedure given the time and effort it involves. Our non-invasive ultrasound screening technique allows us to sidestep this obstacle. The result can confirm the initial suspicion and warrant further steps that are relevant in court. We often compare this process to the breath alcohol test of motorists done by the police.
What benefits do you expect from using this technology? What will be its primary application?
Hewener: The technology is primarily intended for use at national borders and ideally at all European borders. As part of this project, we are collaborating with the German authorities. The German BKA (Federal Office of Criminal Investigation), is directly involved in the project as a partner. We are also supported by various regional police associations. What’s more, we also have a letter of support from the Federal Police. In the future – and wherever applicable - the device could also be used during crackdowns in red light districts in addition to border controls, which mostly take place at airports here in Germany. At the moment, the project’s focus is still on the clinical evaluation aspect. The mobile device still requires testing. One future measure would then be an evaluation in collaboration with the Federal Police or the German BKA.
A first demonstrator: The handheld ultrasonic scanner developed as part of the "PRIMSA" initiative.
What were actual technical challenges you faced during the development of the system?
Hewener: One technical challenge was the development of compact ultrasound electronics, which we designed as an efficient technology with an emphasis on low power consumption and compactness.
Another emphasis was the design of a robust measurement system along with our project partner Cemec - Intelligente Mechanik GmbH. The ultrasound measuring technology to estimate bone age has been available for many years, for example, to determine or predict growth disorders early on in children. However, these findings are often inaccurate because it is very difficult to achieve reproducibility of the individual measurements, depending on where or how you measure.
In addition to the compact and cost-efficient electronic system, we also used a special mechanism and an ultrasound array transducer. This makes proof of age more reliable. Not only do we take measurements at the wrist, we also take a series of measurements at several other places. This provides meaningful information about the status of the bone joint. In collaboration with the Saarland University at the Medical Center Homburg/Saar and the Hope for Freedom e.V. Society, which developed the initial ideas of this project, we will evaluate the measurement accuracy by the end of this year.
As part of the PRIMSA Initiative, the development of the scanner is also viewed from a socio-scientific and socio-psychological perspective. What makes this interdisciplinary approach so essential?
Hewener: The PRIMSA network doesn't just focus on the technical components we develop here at the Fraunhofer IBMT. It also primarily emphasizes the subject of human trafficking. What are the causes of human trafficking? What happens to the victims? Support programs for the victims offered by NGOs are geared towards these questions for example. Thanks to the involvement of the public authorities in this project, complete training packages that can assist in educating police officers and employees have also been created.
The network shines a bright light on the legal aspects for example as well – and investigates whether our system can actually be used in official practice and whether it complies with data protection directives. Right now, we collect and analyze the data to fine-tune the algorithms. At a later point, the local official should only require a type of traffic light on the smartphone, allowing him/her to interpret whether his/her initial suspicion was warranted – similar to a breathalyzer. In this case, the official also writes down the measured value in his/her logbook while no personal data is stored on the actual device.
What are some other intended contexts where this device will be used, especially as it pertains to medical or care applications?
Hewener: Cost-effective, mobile ultrasound electronics can be the foundation of many applications. One concrete example of this would be an osteoporosis scanner that measures bone density at the heel. There are already many ultrasound-based systems on the market but the easy-to-use and cost-efficient measurement technology via smartphone is innovative. There is also a trend towards setting up ultrasound for mobile use in ambulances. This enables fast cardiology diagnosis for example. You can also transfer the technology to consumer electronics. It is a technology of very broad benefit that can be used anywhere.
The interview was conducted by Julia Unverzagt and translated from German by Elena O'Meara. MEDICA-tradefair.com