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Researchers associated with Georgia Tech are developing a hand-held device that a doctor could simply point at patients to learn their heart and respiration rates.

A comparison to the chirping medical scanners used on the television show "Star Trek" is inevitable, said Doug Robinson, chief operating officer of Health Techniques of Georgia Inc."I've heard that more times than you can imagine," he said. "It's really very close to that."

But the vital signs monitor, which the company hopes to market in about 18 months, is expected to look more like a pocket calculator than the sleek cylinders that whirr at patients on "Star Trek." And it was inspired not by science fiction but by a military need to help medics on the battlefield.

Georgia Tech researchers have delivered to the military a prototype somewhat bigger than a briefcase. And the university licensed Health Techniques to sell the technology to civilian health care providers.

"We think it has particular application for patients who are severely burned, where no contact (with the skin) is possible or looked for, and also with patients who may have a contagious disease or patients who have compromised immune systems and have to be isolated from contact with other people," Robinson said.

The device would weigh 1 1/2 to 2 pounds and would have a top range of six feet to 10 feet, Robinson said.

Stephen Bonasera, a research engineer on the Tech team that is developing the monitor, said the device depends on microwave transmissions and the motions of a patient's body. Microwaves are shot through patients' clothing into the body. The returning waves then are analyzed. "Phase changes" in the waves show the heart's movements.

The battery-powered device envisioned by Health Techniques would need to bounce its microwaves off a patient for 15 to 20 seconds, but Robinson said the power level falls well within the most stringent safety standard.

Tech's work began in 1984 with Navy funding. The Air Force later added funding, and Bonasera said the Army also is interested.