Sensors are at the heart of many of the most innovative and game-changing Internet of Things (IoT) applications. We asked five engineers to share their thoughts on the future of sensor technology.
Communication will be the fastest growth area in sensor technology. A good wireless link allows sensors to be placed in remote or dynamic environments where physical cables are impractical. Home Internet of Things (IoT) sensors will continue to leverage home Wi-Fi networks, but outdoor and physically-remote sensors will evolve to use cell networks. Cell networks are not just for voice anymore. Just ask your children. Phones are for texting—not for talking. The new 5G mobile service that rolls out in 2017 is designed with the Internet of Things in mind. Picocells and Microcells will better organize our sensors into manageable domains. What is the best cellular data plan for your refrigerator and toaster? I can’t wait for the TV commercials. — Christopher Cantrell (Software Engineer, CGI Federal)
Sensors of the future will conglomerate into microprocessor controlled blocks that are accessed over a network. For instance, weather sensors will display temperature, barometric pressure, humidity, wind speed, and direction along with latitude, longitude, altitude, and time thrown in for good measure, and all of this will be available across a single I2C link. Wide area network sensor information will be available across the Internet using encrypted links. Configuration and calibration can be done using webpages and all documentation will be stored online on the sensors themselves. Months’ worth of history will be saved to MicroSD drives or something similar. These are all things that we can dream of and implement today. Tomorrow’s sensors will solve tomorrow’s problems and we can really only make out the barest of glimpses of what tomorrow will hold. It will be entertaining to watch the future unfold and see how much we missed. — David C. Tyler (Retired Computer Scientist)
Quo vadis electronics? During the past few decades, electrical engineering has gone through an unprecedented growth. As a result, we see electronics to control just about everything around us. To be sure, what we call electronics today is in fact a symbiosis of hardware and software. At one time every electrical engineer worth his salt had to be able to solder and to write a program. A competent software engineer today may not understand what makes the hardware tick, just as a hardware engineer may not understand software, because it’s often too much for one person to master. In most situations, however, hardware depends on software and vice versa. While current technology enables us to do things we could not even dream about just a few years ago, when it comes to controlling or monitoring physical quantities, we remain limited by what the data sensors can provide. To mimic human intellect and more, we need sensors to convert reality into electrical signal. For that research scientists in the fields of physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, and so forth work hard to discover novel, advanced sensors. Once a new sensor principle has been found, hardware and software engineers will go to work to exploit its detection capabilities in practical use. In my mind, research into new sensors is presently the most important activity for sustaining progress in the field of electronic control. — George Novacek (Engineer, Columnist, Circuit Cellar)
It’s hard to imagine the future of sensors going against the general trend of lower power, greater distribution, smaller physical size, and improvements in all of the relevant parameters. With the proliferation of small connected devices beyond industrial and specialized use into homes and to average users (IoT), great advances and price drops are to be expected. Tech similar to that, once reserved for top-end industrial sensor networks, will be readily available. As electrical engineers, we will just have to adjust as always. After years of trying to avoid the realm of RF magic, I now find myself reading up on the best way to integrate a 2.4-GHz antenna onto my PCB. Fortunately, there is an abundance of tools, application notes, and tutorials from both the manufacturers and the community to help us with this next step. And with the amazing advances in computational power, neural networks, and various other data processing, I am eager to see what kind of additional information and predictions we can squeeze out of all those measurements. All in all, I am looking forward to a better, more connected future. And, as always, it’s a great time to be an electrical engineer. — David Gustafik (Hardware Developer, MicroStep-MIS)
Miniature IoT, sensor, and embedded technologies are the future. Today, IoT technology is a favorite focus among many electronics startups and even big corporations. In my opinion, sensor-based medical applications are going to be very important in our day-to-day lives in the not-so-distant future. BioMEMS sensors integrated on a chip have already made an impact in industry with devices like glucometers and alcohol detectors. These types of BioMEMS sensors, if integrated inside mobile phones for many medical applications, can address many human needs. Another interesting area is wireless charging. Imagine if you could charge all your devices wirelessly as soon as you walk into your home. Wouldn’t that be a great innovation that would make your life easier? So, technology has a very good future provided it can bring out solutions which can really solve human needs. — Nishant Mittal (Master’s Student, IIT Bombay, Mumbai)