The human body’s design with its brain, nerves, and senses can give everyone, from design engineers to executives, a good sense of where the seemingly unending sensor evolution leads. This anatomical analogy applies to what we can expect from sensor technology now and in the future.
Our bodies feature well-connected, long-lasting systems and compact centers of sensing and processing that deliver transformative compounded benefits when functioning holistically. My vision of sensor innovation is increasingly connected, compact, and compounded in design and value.
I have a unique view of sensor evolution end goals. I helped develop and deploy embedded operating systems and devices in the early 1990s and have been building the Internet of Things (IoT) nearly every day since.
The Quest for Data from Everything Hinges on Connected Sensors
Sensor technology design and manufacturing demands continue to rise to the needs of our continuously connected world. Ancient sensors like sundials telling time in city centers or anemometers measuring wind speed and direction on ship bows were helpful and applicable in their day, even unconnected.
However, with the collective goal of connecting seemingly everything to the Internet to create intelligent connected systems, today’s and tomorrow’s sensors must employ the latest advancements in connectivity. Why? We want to accelerate real-time data analytics to match the growing demand for immediate, on-demand action by people and machines.
Eventually, no matter how remote, unconnected machines, devices, and sensors will be replaced. Walking into the factory or driving into the field to download sensor data, flip a switch, open a valve, or read a gauge should be time-consuming tasks of the past.
This isn’t happening overnight, but we’ve moved from mechanical machines to embedded electronics to greenfield digitally connected devices and fast-forwarded to autonomous robotics over the last few decades. The IoT connectivity revolution will still rely on brownfield design engineering as legacy machinery and systems built to last must adapt to new connected digital standards. But smart connected devices will replace every unconnected device or machine.
High-speed, low-latency yet still-emerging 5G leads this push to pervasive connectivity. While 6G develops in the wings, 5G connectivity will have a massive impact on the future of sensors and is already enabling advanced sensor-level edge computing. This intelligent edge fueled by smart connected sensor data empowers the capabilities of the Artificial Intelligence of Things (AIoT), machine learning, augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR), camera vision, autonomous systems, and more technological advancements.
Compact Sensor Design is Aggressively Progressive
Connected device use cases in the military and NASA historically translate into IoT products for consumers and industries. These applications will continue to drive the design of sensors. Sensor manufacturers put more functionality in more compact components and housings while maintaining reliability and increasing battery life. For example, autonomous self-driving vehicles and AI robotics need advanced vision, so sensors that mimic the human eye with magnification features beyond biological ability are available.
We want more power, bandwidth, and sensing capabilities in a smaller package to fit and blend in with our brownfield and greenfield environments and devices. Engineers have created wireless, battery-powered temperature sensors the size of postage stamps, mechanical and chemical nanosensors, and ingestible biosensors from pill-size to smaller than a grain of rice or salt for medical sensing applications.
Sensor miniaturization and micromachining aren’t new. But there’s a growing demand for sensors in a smaller footprint with secure, smarter sensing capabilities and longer battery life. We see a correlation between compact sensor design and the most effective yet least expensive materials science and mechanical design.
Accelerometers, for example, are constantly being upgraded to be cheaper, smaller, and more intelligent. Microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) gas sensors are doing this too. Cost-effective, smarter, and compact sensor design has a ripple effect across applications that we couldn’t address a few years ago.
The Compounded Value of Smart, Connected, Compact Sensors
Everything from connected digital capabilities to miniaturized sensing components to a reliable long-range communications platform empowers the compounded value of sensor design and function.
Once again, we can look for insightful comparisons to our bodies to see sensor technology’s evolution and near-future direction. Our intuitive and autonomous five senses connected to our central nervous system combine to create a continuous multisensory experience throughout the day. The most important and strongest sensations typically earn the instantaneous focus of our individual and collective senses at any moment.
Similarly, a multisensor or sensor network using sensor fusion, artificial intelligence, and multithreading can transform real-time monitoring, data analytics, machine learning, automation, and autonomous processes. This powerful combination of multiple smart sensing technologies can help us achieve the business value of moving from remote monitoring to predicting and innovating the performance of nearly everything.
As an IoT optimist, I see more opportunities than sensor design and manufacturing challenges. There’s never been as many new design requests and ideas or new ways to sense things. Although there may be temporary supply chain setbacks and extended lead times, we should always be contingency planning and managing multiple resources. Here are just some of the opportunities I see in the rapid evolution of sensor technology:
- Accelerate the melding of consumer smart sensor applications with commercial and industrial counterparts.
- Advance computer vision and compact camera sensing technologies for greater autonomy.
- Design multisensors with a 360-degree view of multiple applications and complex environments.
- Develop better, more efficient energy sources using micropower and environmental sources.
- Integrate intelligent technologies with edge sensing to drive faster automation and innovation.
IoT Sensors Create Transformative Innovations
Work and personal life continue to be reinvented, rebuilt, and reimagined with the convergence of IoT innovations and complementary technologies. Efficient processes, systems, services, and products in virtually every industry depend upon the versatility of connected sensors. IoT businesses should emphasize the form and function of connected sensor design rather than focusing on manufacturing. As industry applications continually evolve and emerge, sensor designers and manufacturers who act on key trends and needs will be the winners in the battle for the future of sensors.
This article is written by Brad Walters, Founder and CEO of Monnit. For more information, visit here .
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