As we conclude our coverage the latest technologies presented at IDTechEx USA 2016, there remain many more exciting innovations to be shared. The materials, devices, and products that are likely to be a part of our everyday lives in the near future truly embody astounding design and functionality achievements. Yet, the technology available not only represents the pinnacle of current progress but also what is to be the foundation that future creations will be built upon.
Technology is undoubtedly progressing towards an era of ubiquitous sensing, quantifying every part of our lives. With so much data at our fingertips, we will be able to conserve resources, make better decisions as to our health and well-being, and enjoy heightened autonomy in our technology. Products which will be significantly contributing to this near-future-reality include sensors, e-textiles, and battery and energy storage solutions.
Here are some of the latest innovations and developments in these areas that were presented at IDTechEx 2016 US.
Sensor technology is co-evolving with the demand for products to be small, flexible, and power and cost efficient. No longer can sensors be assumed to be hard, rigid devices—they are taking forms that make them conveniently concealed in our environment, such as integrated into textile fabric or thin-film technology. Advancements in printing technology are now making it possible to mass produce printed and flexible sensors, reducing materials (eco-friendly) and cost, paving the way for new form factors (e.g., large area sensors), and aiding the creation of vast sensor networks for ubiquitous monitoring.
With the tagline ‘Make Things Knowable,’ BeBop Sensors ideally represents the current trends in sensor design: multi-functional, flexible, customizable, and the ability to be incorporated into a number of different products. Their pressure-sensitive fabric sensors are made using a proprietary Monolithic Fabric Sensor Technology which results in all components (sensors, traces, microcontroller, etc.) being integrated into a single piece of fabric. In addition, by printing conductive inks directly on the fabric, the sensor area can be made into customized shapes and sizes.
Several OEMs have already found inventive uses for the sensor material: an arm controller that can adjust music controls or answer your phone by pressing buttons on your sleeve; shoe insoles that measure the force of the feet during activity; a skull cap that can detect impact to the head, which could be worn under athletic helmets (e.g., football) to help in tracking the location and force of head trauma; and a circular grip sensor, useful for addressing sports’ performance such as in swinging a bat or golf club.
Another intriguing application is its use in the automotive sector for occupant monitoring for safety device deployment such as an air bag. With BeBop sensor technology in the seat, the height and weight of the occupant could be relayed to adjust the airbag deployment location and force for maximal safety. The sensor fabric can be designed to support multiple functionalities including the ability to analyze size, shape, weight, force, movement, pressure, rotation, and other variables. By being incorporated into the textiles or materials already in our surroundings, BeBop sensors can supply helpful data without disrupting our experience in interacting with our environment.
Printed sensors are finding a welcomed home in medical applications with their flexible and disposable form factor. GSI Technologies, for example, has been contracted to produce such equipment as test strips (e.g., blood glucose, cholesterol, custom), wearable sensors for monitoring glucose and electrolytes, diagnostic electrodes (e.g., ECG, EEG), and iontophoretic patches for transdermal drug delivery. The substrate materials and inks are customly chosen for end-products depending on the application and functionality requirement.
PST Sensors is using printed silicon technology to bring reliable temperature sensing to innovative applications. Particularly, the technology provides solutions for applications where temperature has to be measured over a large area or when the sensors need to conform to a 3D curved surface. The silicon sensors can be screen printed onto different flexible substrates, including paper, polymers, or fabric.
Figure 3: PST Sensors can produce silicon thermistors in a variety of sizes, arrays, and on different substrates using printing technology.
Figure 4: Thermal imaging Mat (TiM), an array of individually addressed temperature sensors, and XY-T Array, an array of fully XY addressable passive matrix sensors, by PST Sensors
As sensor design converges into a new standard (i.e. thin, printed, flexible), it is the applications that set sensor technologies apart. What data can they provide and how will it improve our lives? Novel applications are the most exciting part of sensor technology development.
Infratab produces smart sensors that monitor the freshness of perishables as well as track and trace their location. The sensor tags are battery powered and can come equipped with an RFID sensor, a temperature sensor, and an LED light. Further, the tags are flexible and can be reused (average approximately 10 times). The corresponding software platform analyzes the data with advanced freshness metrics, providing information about how much freshness is left in a product, reducing waste. The technology can be utilized at every point along the supply chain, and the feedback can help analyze the effect of shipping and storage practices on perishables, for handling improvement. By offering solutions where conventional practices come up short, Infratab is demonstrating how sensor technology can improve our lives by helping to make our perishable products fresh and safe.
The introduction of graphene into biosensor technology has resulted in faster, more accurate, and lower cost chemical testing technology. Because graphene is carbon allotrope, it is able to operate in a biological environment (i.e. it can survive in direct contact with biologic material), and it is a highly conductive material as well. Nanomedical Diagnostics has capitalized on these features creating an electronic label-free assay with a graphene-based biosensor chip.
The AGILE R100 provides rapid measurements and continuous sensing for kinetic binding measurements. The technology can be used for a number of applications including medical diagnoses, testing for particular substances in the body, or for testing the efficacy of prescription medications. Essentially the way it works is that a capture molecule is added to the graphene surface (such as an antibody, something your target substance would bind to) and when the target analyte (the substance in the specimen you are testing for) binds with the capture molecule, there is an electrical change on the surface that is read by the system.
The graphene technology provides added benefits of high sensitivity, the ability to test for small molecules and to test in small volumes, and the unit carries a small footprint. The AGILE system is truly a giant leap forward from large, slower, more expensive testing equipment previously used. As more research is accomplished, this technology will make a huge impact in medicine, chemical science, forensics and other applications.
Novel sensor applications are also found in larger settings as well. Otosense in partnership with Analog Devices is bringing sound intelligence to support smart city operations. With Otosense’s deep-learning-based sound recognition platform, city logistics or emergency responses can be tracked or directed by identifying such sounds as gunshots, sirens, collisions, etc. Different sounds are identified and tagged in cloud-based sound platter (aka the splatter), supplying cities with recognition of hundreds of more events. Specific sounds can also be directly supplied to help identify sounds that are deemed important to detect. The utilization of sound intelligence offers some unique advantages. Because sound can travel far distances through most any material, events can be detected at great distances in any direction. This would mean a sensor would not need to be found in short proximity to any event. Now the sounds that are often tuned-out or that are undetectable to the human ear can be harvested for intelligent action.
Figure 7: Otosense’s sound recognition device support smart city operations by identifying sounds such as gunshots, sirens, collisions, etc
From the detection of tiny molecules to the sounds of the city, sensor technology is providing data for directed action for nearly all aspects of our lives. The underlying core of so many sensor applications comes down to health and safety and well-being. Sensors do not just exist for monetary gain, they provide humanistic functions. As sensor technology continues to become more eco-friendly, efficient, and cost-effective, many more applications will assuredly arise.