This column presents technologies that have applications in commercial areas, possibly creating the products of tomorrow. To learn more about each technology, see the contact information provided for that innovation.
Pressure Sensor Mechanism
NASA Johnson Space Center developed the Pressure Sensor Mechanism to measure or monitor tactile pressure. Based on passive Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) sensor tags, it is applicable to a variety of systems. In operation, this RFID-enabled patented technology reacts to a pressure change, causing the passive tag to generate an electromagnetic field. The sensor has the potential to be easily integrated into mechanical systems to wirelessly and autonomously communicate pressure changes back to a monitoring system without an external power supply. Potential applications for this technology include remote patient mobility monitoring, robotic control systems, pressure-sensing gloves, and security systems. Older devices may also be outfitted with these sensors to add pressure-monitoring functionality while avoiding the cost of a total system replacement.
Contact: Johnson Space Center
Electronic Skin for Prosthetics
Amputees often experience the sensation of a “phantom limb” — a feeling that a missing body part is still there. Johns Hopkins University has created an electronic skin that, when layered on top of prosthetic hands, brings back a real sense of touch through the fingertips. Made of fabric and rubber laced with sensors to mimic nerve endings, the e-dermis recreates a sense of touch as well as pain by sensing stimuli and relaying the impulses back to the peripheral nerves. The skin sends information to the amputee by stimulating peripheral nerves in the arm, making the so-called phantom limb come to life. Inspired by human biology, the e-dermis enables its user to sense a continuous spectrum of tactile perceptions, from light touch to noxious or painful stimulus.
Contact: Tracey Reeves, Johns Hopkins University
Sensor Combination Detects People by Smell
Trained rescue dogs are the best disaster workers — their sensitive noses help them track down people buried by earthquakes or avalanches. But dogs need breaks, so ETH Zurich researchers developed a device that detects people by smell. It consists of small and extremely sensitive gas sensors for acetone, ammonia, and isoprene — all metabolic products that people emit in low concentrations via breath or skin. The sensors are combined with two commercial sensors for CO 2 and moisture. While there are electronic devices for searching after earthquakes, these work to locate trapped people who are capable of making themselves heard or are visible beneath ruins. These resources would be complemented with the chemical sensors. Drones and robots could also be equipped with the gas sensors, allowing difficult-to-reach or inaccessible areas to also be searched.