The market research firm Gartner Group claims it has quantified the use of the term “Internet of Things” and has concluded that the use of this buzzword in society has probably peaked. In the midst of the IoT hyperbole, a recent IoT development went largely unnoticed.
September marked a meeting of the TSensors Summit. The “T” in TSensors stands for trillion. TSummits serve as forums for what might be called sensor visionaries. These visionaries present ideas on sensor applications and manufacturing platforms that could make possible sensor shipments measured in the trillions within a decade. More to the point, those in the TSensors movement think it will be sensor technology that ushers in the larger vision of an IoT.
One of the Summit organizers is Dr. Jansz Bryzek. After escaping from communist Poland, Bryzek went on to co-found eight start-up companies in the MEMS sensor area that include ensym (now Honeywell), ICSensors (now Elmos/MSI), NovaSensor (now General Electric), Intelligent MicroSensor Technology (now Maxim), Transparent Networks (IP acquired by Intel), LVSI (now Atmel), and Jyve (private). Some of Bryzek’s accomplishments include devising the world’s first disposable blood pressure sensor, creating the world’s first pressure sensors based on silicon fusion bonding (currently shipping 100 million units per year), and producing a multichip tire pressure sensing system.
Bryzek said it takes a long time to develop new sensors, longer than what is usually required to devise new ICs. The point of TSensors is to accelerate that lengthy development cycle. The plan is to collect ideas for sensor applications likely to ship in super-high volumes, find emerging sensor technologies that seem to fit these applications, then push the supply chain in directions that encourage the necessary development efforts.
So far, TSensor visionaries have identified nine promising apps that make use of 20 sensor technology platforms. But the technology that many will find most intriguing for sensors employs 3D printing. TSummit visionaries figure 3D-printed sensors could eventually be fabricated for about one-millionth of a cent per sensor. At that level, numerous applications become practical, including several that further humanitarian goals such as fighting global hunger, making healthcare affordable for everyone and boosting energy efficiency.
One idea that has emerged is that of putting sensor arrays on seeds before they get planted. The sensors would monitor the health and nutrient needs of each plant so no fertilizer gets wasted and water-use planning would fold in weather forecasts. Similarly, TSensor enthusiasts think super-cheap sensors could monitor food freshness in every package of food sold.
In the same vein, refrigerators equipped for IoT sensors will have their own Swarm Server for collecting food status. The Swarm Server will likely handle such tasks as discerning incentives for buying food early, scheduling deliveries and matching up food needs to the diets of those in the household, which the fridge has stored in a profile.
The fridge may be able to track the status to any food it orders thanks to 3D-printed monitoring tags on shipped packages. And those tags will likely include sensor arrays measuring shock, temperature and shipping time so recipients can tell if the food they receive will still be good a few days after they receive it.
To pave the way for these sorts of far-out sensing uses, TSensor organizers are planning a TSensors Challenge modeled after the Xprize. They see it as another way to stimulate the development of sensors for humanitarian goals. Though the Challenge is only in the preliminary planning stages, organizers envision multiple levels of competition, from high school students devising household sensors to startups and established firms designing sensors with far-reaching consequences.
Grand challenges of the type envisioned by TSensors organizers typically get award money from deep-pocketed companies that attach their name to the prize. Bryzek said the group is now working on a strategy to raise the award funds.
Even without the benefit of 3D-printed sensors, Internet-connected sensing is growing at a fast pace. Among the more notable examples of the trend, said Bryzek, are sensors emerging from research labs at UC San Diego. There Bioengineering Professor Todd Coleman is working with Materials Science and Engineering Professor John A. Rogers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to produce tattoo-like sensors that have already won a Grand Challenge grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The flexible tattoo-like sensors, which are being commercialized by a company called M10, continuously monitor uterine contractions, fetal heart rate and oxygen, and maternal heart rate and body temperature. Researchers figure the technology could enable non-invasive, wireless and continuous pregnancy monitoring of at-risk women. The wearable patch of circuits, sensors and wireless transmitters stretches and flexes with the skin while beaming out data.
Coleman said this kind of sensing has tremendous potential for developing countries where healthcare access is limited, but mobile phone usage is high. The plan is for the electronic tattoo to transmit bodily signals to the mobile phone. Then doctors thousands of miles away can access the information and provide clinical advice.
Nor are sensors for food quality waiting for additional advances in sensing. An example comes from Consumer Physics, an Israeli company. Its product SCiO is basically a handheld spectrometer that analyzes an object’s makeup by scanning the way light interacts with its molecular vibrations to determine its unique optical signature.
Potential applications include scanning food to get calorie counts, scanning pills to see their chemical makeup, and scanning household plants and flowers to see if they need water. It’s also likely people with food allergies might use the device to detect the potential for allergic reactions.
The SCiO sends its data to a smartphone for analysis using algorithms in the SCiO smartphone app. The whole process is said to take only a few seconds. Consumer Physics is also encouraging users to upload their findings into a central database so analysis gets more accurate over time.
All in all, Bryzek sees the TSensors movement eliminating a lot of global problems while making people worldwide healthier. And equally as important, “We will have more fun than ever,” he maintained.
TSensors movement, http://www.tsensorssummit.org/
Filed Under: TECHNOLOGIES + PRODUCTS, Sensors (position + other), Sensors (pressure)