President and CEO
Dewetron, Inc.
Wakefield, RI

In 40 years, data acquisition products have evolved from paper-based chart recorders and analog tape machines, to computer-based instruments. As a result, the relatively slow pace of improvements in performance that typified data recorders for nearly a century is now swept along on the fast-moving current of computer technology advances.

But what does the future hold for our industry? While it’s easy to focus on the technology of making measurements, the more important thing to consider is why we make measurements in the first place. In fact, the only reason to measure data is to understand what is happening with what’s being measured, whether it’s a power transformer, motorcycle engine, an electric motor, or a beating heart.

In my opinion, today’s advances in all of the technologies behind data acquisition is only the first, necessary step toward future incredible measuring instruments. The next step must bring understanding to the instrument.

We can see advances already here with certain dedicated function instruments, such as sound analyzers. In addition to simply measuring sound, they can analyze sound pressure level and perform frequency analysis using the classic fourier transformation. Similarly, power analyzers not only measure current and voltage, but they calculate dozens of relevant properties of the power network. Various medical devices do the same.

But in the realm of general-purpose data acquisition instruments, we have a long way to go before the measuring instrument can also understand the data and tell us what it means — automatically and effortlessly. This will require a step function increase in computer power and programming of the instrument, so that it will know what it is measuring, and present the operator with several perspectives on what it means.

Future instruments will also need to learn, so that when they encounter the same subject, they will automatically compare today’s measurements with those from the past, and infer trends. Is the machine healthier now, or less? What has changed, and why might it have changed? This is the future of measuring instruments — we just need to keep working to make them better and smarter.

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NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the March, 2016 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

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