SensorsCon highlights: MEMS in the Internet of Things, networks, and camera pills

March 22, 2012 — SensorsCon 2012 was held March 21 at the Santa Clara TechMart Center, in conjunction with the annual meeting of the International Society for Quality Electronic Design (ISQED). This is the first such meeting focusing on sensor technology, with about 60 attendees. As a design conference, the focus was more on system design and architecture rather than on the underlying technology components that I am more accustomed to covering.

MEMS for Internet of Things, mobile personal healthcare
The opening keynote talk was presented by Janusz Bryzek, VP MEMS & Sensor Development at Fairchild Semiconductor, speaking on the emergence of a trillion dollar micro electro mechanical system (MEMS) sensor market. The next generation of Nintendo Wii game controllers will reportedly each contain ~100 MEMS devices to connect gamers with the real world. The MEMS market has reached ~$10 billion, with a 14% 5-year compound annual growth rate (CAGR) — expected to increase to over 50% as new market opportunities are proven. Acceleration of the MEMS R&D cycle will be aided by the development of better software design tools and by the adoption of uniform unit processes.

The much-touted Internet of Things (IoT) would require that internet data transfer capacity grow 1,000x by 2013, to support all of the proposed sensor applications. The ARM Flycatcher, a 1mm2 microcontroller with an average selling price (ASP) of $0.20, is being promoted as the world’s most energy-efficient computer and is targeted at supporting interconnectivity for the IoT.

By 2015, 30% of smart phones are expected to contain a mobile health app, and effectively all smartphones will by 2020. A breath alcohol analyzer app is already on the market for $79. Mobile personal health diagnostics is expected to be a $50B market by 2021.

Sensors in our daily lives
Kevin Shaw, CTO at Sensor Platforms, talked about the myriad ways in which we already interact with sensors every day. Apple’s voice-recognition software Siri represents a high-level integrated sensor system from the automatic activation when you lift the iPhone to your ear to the location-specific speech parsing to interpret and respond to your questions.

Also read: Apple buys most MEMS microphones in 2011

Separating intentional actions from spurious motions is a critical issue for reliable device performance. For example, smartphones contain an optical proximity sensor that works in conjunction with positional sensors to turn off the touch screen when the phone is held up to your ear; thus, “ear dialing” is not a problem. Better solutions are still required to address “butt dialing.” Digital barometers are used for vertical positioning information, with a resolution able to report stairway ascent step by step. Newer phones have three microphones to allow beam steering: the ability to focus on the speaker and cancel extraneous noise.

Crowd sourcing is the use of collective sensor information from multiple users to determine such things as traffic patterns, or the epicenter of an earthquake more quickly and more accurately than the traditional permanent sensors in the ground. The sensors are already widely available on smartphones; what remains is to implement them to their full potential.

Sensor networks
Paul Berenberg of Cubic Global Tracking Solutions spoke on the application of wireless sensor networks to logistics issues, including the thorny security issue of bulk cargo containers. Current systems allow tracking only when they pass through designated reader checkpoints. Real-time continuous container tracking requires a highly reliable secure network with extended battery life regardless of environmental conditions. Such a system uniquely requires a high tolerance for signal congestion, as when many containers are loaded on one ship. The current ceiling seems to be ~10k nodes per network, which is not adequate for large-scale logistics implementation. By the end of this century, global population is predicted to be 10 billion people, each with 100 connections to the IoT. Interested parties are invited to check out the Internet Protocol for Smart Objects (IPSO) alliance at www.ipso-alliance.org.

Terry O’Shea of Intel Labs took us to the edge of the cloud, where he defines Perceptive Edge as the use of untapped capability to interact with our immediate surroundings through sensors connected via cloud computing. Intel’s rapid prototyping platform consists of a suite of modular sensing applications based on existing FCC-approved protocols in conjunction with different physical-sense capabilities. Home energy monitoring can be accomplished with a power line sensor that fingerprints the on/off signature of each household appliance using fast Fourier transform analysis of the power spike it creates. DHS commissioned an airport monitor to sense CO, CO2, NH3 and EtOH that was unexpectedly prone to false positives due to the alcohol content of now-ubiquitous hand sanitizers. Terry’s suggestion regarding IoT is to invest in batteries, rather than routers and electronics, because someone is going to have to change a lot of batteries for all of the IoT sensors.

Qi Chen of Sprint Nextel talked about the security of sensor networks with an eye toward guaranteed delivery of critical alerts using machine-to-machine (M2M) technology. A number of individual components are in concept and feasibility testing now. One less critical application of video face-recognition technology is the ability to track how long people stop to look at a sign or advertisement, and analyze further for gender and approximate age demographics. Location-specific SMS delivery can improve the chances of successful message delivery by keeping track of the receiver’s location to know if it is turned on and is in a good signal area, or if a backup delivery method will be required.

A panel discussion included three of the previous speakers (Bryzek, Shaw, O’Shea) as well as MP Divakar, CEO of Microlytica, a company that provides algorithms for increasing the confidence level in conclusions drawn from IoT sensors. Location- and activity-based advertising is likely to be the next big driver for remote sensing applications, since the market concept brings with it its own development funding source in the advertisers. The question of ethics and privacy issues related to ubiquitous sensing revealed a deep inconsistency between nations and cultures as to what is considered acceptable and what is not. Don’t expect any kind of universal privacy standards to be developed in our lifetime.

The next big app excluding smartphone and health applications include gas monitoring (think homeland security on your cell phone), crowd sensing for weather prediction, and building the infrastructure necessary to support the IoT.

Thomas Watteyne of Dust Networks talked about standards-based reliable wireless sensor networking. Interoperation is being built around IEEE 802.15.4e. Multi-hop network reliability was of particular interest.

William Kao, professor at CalPoly, gave an overview of sensor network elements needed for wireless smart grid and smart city applications. Smart grid is focused on continuity of electrical power distribution. Smart cities hold a promise (or threat) of the integration of security, surveillance, transportation logistics, environmental, industrial, health care and entertainment. Making it easier to find an open parking space may be one of the fringe benefits of such a grand scheme. Broad-scale benefits can be proposed for agriculture as well, such as sensors for precision irrigation, fertilization, and insect infestation. The coming data tsunami became evident once again, requiring not only more bandwidth and system storage, but smarter algorithms for managing data retention and discarding data that has no lasting value.

Medical sensors
Sudhi Gautam, head of Medical Device Solutions for Mphasis, an HP company, discussed the emerging opportunities for sensors in medicine. A critical component of the definition of a medical device is that its function is not dependent on being metabolized; it is an engineering discipline, not a product of chemistry or biology to first order. The band of 400-410MHz has been set aside by the FCC specifically for medical device intercommunication. Endoscopes can today be replaced by a camera pill that can take 57,000 photos as it passes through the entire digestive system in a procedure considerably less invasive than a colonoscopy. I suspect this will eventually result in new posting limits on Snapfish.com.

Michael A. Fury, Ph.D. is director and senior technology analyst at Techcet Group, North Plains, OR.

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