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Businessweek Archives

I Sense The Body Electric

Developments to Watch


THE PUMPING OF THE heart is controlled by electrical signals, which doctors measure when they take an electrocardiogram. These signals also generate an irregular, ultralow-frequency electric field that extends in a circle around the body. The field is faint. However, unlike the higher-frequency signals transmitted by radio, TV, and cell phones, it can pass through almost any physical obstruction.

Scientists and military engineers at DielectroKinetic Laboratories LLC, a Washington (D.C.) startup, have exploited this field to develop a handheld sensing device to help rescuers find survivors buried under landslides or collapsed buildings. The DKL Lifeguard could also help soldiers locate enemies hiding in an urban battlefield.

The patented Lifeguard draws on 50 years of research on behavior of objects in "nonuniform" electric fields--an area of study that's already yielded pollution sensors and drug-delivery systems. The Lifeguard, however, is the first product to sense the body's field at a distance, says DKL's chief executive manager, Howard Sidman. The high-end, $14,000 model works at a range of 540 yards and is unaffected by higher-frequency radio signals. In tests, the Lifeguard's digital filters distinguished humans from other animals with 100% accuracy, says Sidman.EDITED BY CATHERINE ARNST Neil GrossReturn to top


FOR YEARS, ISRAELI MILITARY contractors have used inertial navigation systems to guide planes and smart weapons. These dead-reckoning systems, which are constructed from gyroscopes, accelerometers, and chips, keep track of where they are without the need for any special beacons or markers on the ground.

Now, Friendly Systems Ltd. in Even Yehuda, some 20 miles north of Tel Aviv, has adapted the technology for civilian use. Early next year, it will introduce two products: a $1,500 robotic lawn mower called RoboMow that can dodge trees and shrubs, and a $1,000 golf caddy dubbed RoboTroll that will follow its owner along a golf course without getting lost. "We've been able to reduce the cost since the environment we are targeting is substantially smaller than the military arena," says Udi Peless, founder and president of the company.

A third product, which is slated to be launched in early 1999, is called RoboVac. It will move independently along carpets in a house, vacuuming them on specific days at appointed times. Further down the road, Peless is planning robotic snowblowers and floor-polishers. Can RoboNannies be far behind?Neal SandlerReturn to top


THE ANTIBIOTICS KNOWN AS AMINOGLYCOSIDES ARE effective, inexpensive, and rarely produce allergic reactions. They're among the most widely used drugs in the world. But they have one serious side effect: They can combine with iron in the bloodstream to trigger the production of free-radical molecules. These rip apart tiny hair cells in the inner ear, causing irreversible hearing loss. In China, where aminoglycosides are available without prescription, studies found that two-thirds of all cases of deafness occurring after birth were caused by the drugs.

A team of scientists from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor might have discovered a way to prevent such damage. Writing in the Journal of Pharmacology & Experimental Therapeutics, they report that iron chelators--medications that soak up excess iron in the blood--protected guinea pigs exposed to aminoglycosides from hearing damage. The treatment did not compromise the effects of the antibiotics, says research leader Jochen Schacht, a professor of biological chemistry at the school.Return to top

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