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Electronics pervades nearly every aspect of our lives, from the latest consumer gadgets in our homes that entertain us, keep us safe and wake us up in time to get to work, to the electronics that allow us to perform our work, and the electronics that blurs the line between home and work such as mobile communication networks and devices.

Electronic components and electronic devices are becoming more and more portable to allow the consumer to take their electronic life wherever they go.

It is difficult to pinpoint one particular developing trend in electronics over others, since electronics is used in nearly all areas of modern endeavour. Broad areas that have recently received much media attention include renewable energy, 3D printing, and wearable electronics.

One particular area that appears to attract much activity is that of medical technology and in particular, the integration of medical devices with the human body, whether used inside the body as an implant, or outside the body as a piece of wearable apparatus.

The most recent patent statistics analysis1 published by WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organisation) indicates that the most active patent area for Australian-originating patent applicants, is medical technology, with 4,558 patent applications filed in that area between 2007 and 2011, the greatest number of patent applications from Australia in all of the 35 technology fields covered in the study.

Quite independently, IP Australia, the Australian Government office administering Patents, Trade Marks and Designs in Australia, published a study2 of the patent activities of Australian Universities, indicating that the Medical Technology field was the second most actively-patented area, after Pharmaceuticals.

This Medical Technology field is classified under the International Patent Classification (IPC) system code of A61. While this field covers many different technology types including mechanical technologies, a large proportion of technologies supporting this are electronic devices or devices controlled by electronics.

Even a cursory review of patent applications filed in this field will indicate the vast array of electronic devices for use in the medical area, including cochlear and ocular implants, devices for controlling or stimulating body organs, sensors for sensing and measuring any number of human body parameters, and devices for issuing alerts when one or more of these sensed parameters exceeds a threshold.

Not all of these inventions make it to the media, however, there are some intriguing developments which have made news.

Google Inc. is currently testing a smart contact lens that measures glucose levels in tears that will generate an alert if the wearer’s glucose levels have increased or decreased from the normal range. One method of indicating this deviation might be through the use of integrated light emitting diodes (LEDs) that light up to alert the user of a potential problem. This technology could assist the increasing number of people suffering from diabetes, who otherwise need to regularly monitor their glucose levels through blood tests several times per day.3

Telecommunications giant, Qualcomm Incorporated, has provided funding to the Scripps Translational Science Institute (STSI) for clinical trials focusing on wireless biosensor systems. The projects include sensors that float in the blood stream that constantly monitor for signs of medical conditions such as heart disease and type 1 diabetes, and the development of mobile applications that communicate with embedded sensors such as this. The mobile application can then alert the user of a possible problem and recommend that the user seek medical attention.

There are of course other areas of technical development not immediately connected to medical technology, but which nevertheless, will be useful to support developments in this area. One important issue is how to power these devices without having to carry a separate power source. Technologies exist and are being further developed, whereby devices worn by a user can be powered through the movement of the user. In another recent development, batteries are provided through the coating of polyester yarn with nickel and carbon4. Articles such as clothing and watchbands can be made from fabric woven from these fibres, providing a wearable power source. Flexible and lightweight solar cells can also be integrated with the fabric to recharge the batteries.

Through the current developments in electronics technology, the human race is fast moving towards an era in which we have our own personal medical team within our bodies, constantly monitoring our health and alerting us of potential problems, allowing us to seek treatment. Indeed, electronic and allied technologies are being developed which will even perform that treatment automatically. All while we download the latest entertainment with our latest consumer gadget.

  1. World Intellectual Property Indicators, 2013 – WIPO
  2. Research Performance of University Patenting in Australia: A Pilot Assessment, October 2013 – IP Australia
  4. NanoLett., 2013, 13 (11), pp5753-5761, 28 Oct 2013