Sensors – Eyes and Ears in IoT: Smarter then Ever

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Sensors – Eyes and Ears in IoT: Smarter then Ever

Sensors are the eyes and ears of IoT and the latest generation can see, hear, and feel more than ever before, allowing developers to pack in new features by the truckload.

by Bernd Schöne

Sensors are everywhere, doing their jobs silently, efficiently, and without complaint. They can take temperatures, determine levels of dampness or luminance, sense speed and movement, calibrate compression and vibration, ascertain acidity, sense stress and strain, and triangulate their own position to a millionth of an inch. Some can even diagnose diseases.

There’s a quiet revolution going on in sensor development, with a new generation of components set to enter the market to expand the scope and range of sensing and open a plethora of new possibilities for developers and enterprises.

Sensors ears of IoT - Renesas SOTB

Getting Thinner and Thinner: To further reduce power consumption, Renesas uses a technology called SOTB (silicon-onthin-buried-oxide) which operates with an extremely thin oxide layer to reduce electric loss.

As sensors shrink, so does the amount of power required to run them – even to the extent of doing away with power packs altogether. At times, the latest units appear to make the inventor’s dream of a perpetual motion machine come true. By reaping energy from the surrounding environment, these “no-power” chips can store their harvest in tiny condensers or accumulators – no more clunky batteries that need replacement; no more cable spaghetti. After all, how would you hook up a smart sneaker or wearable computer to the nearest socket? The best news is that sensors are getting cheaper every day. Goldman Sachs and BI Intelligence say the cost of IoT sensors decreased between 2004 and 2014 by more than half, from $1.30 to $0.60, and prices are expected to shrink another 37 percent, to $0.38, by 2020.

Sensors ears of IoT - AKM light sensor

Detecting Human Presence: AKM’s new sensor can turn lights, air conditioners, and fans on and off every time a person enters or leaves the room.

One reason for the change is that more IoT sensor companies are entering the market. As of 2017, there were nearly 3,000 IoT companies in North America alone and each year the number of businesses offering IoT technologies and platforms increases. As competition grows, sensor companies are offering more innovative types of sensors and looking for ways to decrease the cost. Another important trend is towards chip integration. Sensors and the electronics needed to analyze results and turn measurements into instructions can now be packed into a single sliver of silicon – and sensors are getting even smarter. Given enough computing power, they will become AI-enabled and pass on only data that is relevant to the task at hand, thus substantially lowering the network load and speeding up processes. Built-in coprocessors can perform powerful encryption on the fly, so that sensitive information can be transmitted from remote locations without worrying about hackers helping themselves.

Eyes and Ears in IoT - Bosch BMA 400 Module

No More False Alarms Bosch’s BMA400 power acceleration sensor can distinguish between real alarm situations like broken glass and false signals from random vibrations.

Sensors under development can reconfigure and recalibrate themselves without the need for human intervention. Tomorrow’s crop will be able to teach themselves new tasks and learn from experience. Pattern recognition and predictive analysis are already within the realm of some sensor’s capabilities. Some devices can detect trends in processing requirements and adapt to them autonomously, storing results in memory elements that retain them even when the sensor has been inactive for a while.

It has been estimated that manufacturing companies worldwide will spend $500 bn a year on IIoT technology, with the total value generated reaching $15 tn per year by 2030. Add to that the increase in productivity with sensors that can predict, for instance, when a machine will fail, or track shipments of goods in real time. No wonder experts estimate the productivity gain due to IIoT over the next couple of years in manufacturing alone at more than 30 percent. And all it takes is some really smart sensors.

Renesas Cuts the Power

At Electronica 2018 in Munich, Japanese semiconductor specialist Renesas introduced its R7F0E embedded controller for energy-harvesting applications. This state-of-the-art chip operates at a power rating of 20 μA per MHz of clock speed in active mode, and a mere 150 nA in deep standby. That is approximately a tenth of the power consumption of conventional low-power microcontroller units (MCUs).

To achieve this dramatic reduction Renesas employed a technology known as SOTB (silicon-on-thinburied-oxide) which uses an extremely thin oxide layer to reduce electric loss. The new processor has enough computing power to run embedded artificial intelligence (eAI) applications, for instance to analyze medical data.

Bosch Feels the Need for Speed

The BMA400 is billed by Bosch as “the first ultra-low power acceleration sensor without compromising on performance.” It is capable of measuring speed and acceleration in three perpendicular axes, and senses both tilt and orientation. Designed for plug-and-play step counting with activity recognition, it is especially suited for wearable devices that need a long-lasting battery, as well as for smart home applications, such as indoor climate and home security systems.

Sensors ears of IoT - TDK HAL sensor

TDK Gets Rid of Interference TDK’s new HAL sensor is especially suited for electric vehicles where miniature magnets are in widespread use.

In security applications, the BMA400 can avoid false alarms by distinguishing between real alarm situations, like the sound of broken glass, and signals just coming from random vibrations. The unit enables precise angle and vibration measurement, making it particularly interesting for IoT applications. For example, in smart homes its energy-saving routines can recognize whether windows are open, tilted, or closed, making it possible to set air-conditioning or heating systems accordingly and save energy. AKM Asks if Anybody’s Home Asahi Kasei Microdevices (AKM) has introduced what it calls “the world’s smallest class ultra-low power infrared sensor IC with an integrated Human Approach Detection algorithm.” According to the manufacturer, the AK9754 consumes less power, when compared to existing systems that need external signal processing, because of a built-in algorithm that makes it suitable for battery-powered applications. The AK9754 has a detection range of up to 1 m and does not need a lens. Typical uses include the automatic switching on and off of lights when a person enters or leaves a room, as well as control of air-conditioning and ventilation systems. TDK-Micronas Attracts Carmakers Sensors for magnetic fields not only call for very precise measurement, they must also be immune to stray fields. Whether designing a new joystick or the driving wheel of a new vehicle, multidimensional magnetic Field measurement is essential.

Sensors IoT - ABB Smart Sensor

Lubrication is Key: ABB’s new smart sensors measure the conditions of bearing during operation and report back via smartphone app, resulting in less downtime and cost.

Eyes and Ears in IoT

With its latest 3D HAL pixel cell technology, TDK-Micronas has introduced a line of sensors especially suited for use in electric vehicles where, for cost reasons, increasingly miniaturized magnets are being used, leading to increased sensitivity to magnetic interference. The company says the new sensors are suitable for use in valves and actuators, selectors and gear shifters, for the detection of pedal position, steering angle, or chassis position. NIR Spectroscopy Brings in the Harvest When the time is ripe, farmers and vineyard owners need to quickly decide when to harvest their crops. To help them, German lighting specialist Osram has developed a smartphone based system which uses a new kind of opto-semiconductor, the Oslon Black SFH 4736. Simply scanning fruit or cereal crops with the near infrared LED (NIRED) installed on a smartphone or tablet running spectroscopy software produces reliable information about the sugar, water, and fat content. The SFH 4736 makes use of the absorption behavior of certain molecular compounds. It irradiates a sample with a defined spectrum of light and the spectrometer measures the wavelength distribution of the reflected light. These measurements indicate the existence and quantity of certain characteristics, allowing the farmer in the field or the vineyard owner at the vine to take samples and easily monitor the progress of their crops in real time so they can plan the ideal time to bring in the harvest. Running Cool More than 80 percent of bearing failures in industries like mining and manufacturing are attributable to inadequate lubrication.

Osram sensor

Time to Bring in the Harvest Farmers can pick the right time to gather their crops thanks to Osram’s new opto semiconductors for smartphones.

The ABB Ability Smart Sensor converts traditional motors, pumps, and mounted bearings into smart, wirelessly connected devices. It measures key parameters from the surface of the equipment which can be used to gain meaningful information on condition and performance, enabling managers to identify inefficiencies within their systems and to reduce risks. The sensor allows maintenance to be planned according to actual needs rather than based on generic schedules, ABB claims. This can extend the lifetime of equipment, cut maintenance costs, and reduce or prevent unplanned downtime due to breakdowns. The sensor attaches to the bearing housing and sends its data to a smartphone or other Bluetooth device, allowing data to be gathered from remote or hazardous locations as well as locally.

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