May R&D Round Up

E-mail Melanie Martella

This month we've got a wireless sensor network that monitors the health and stability of shelving systems in warehouses, sensors that can detect a smoker's motions to track how often they're smoking, and terahertz wave detectors developed for astronomical research but that could be used for a range of terrestrial applications as well.

Stable Shelves
In warehouses, as forklifts whiz around loading and unloading pallets, they sometimes whack into the shelves themselves. Since forklifts are heavy, and even the best shelves can become unsteady if their supports are exposed to repeated and damaging impacts, the people who manage warehouses periodically check the shelves to make sure they're still solid and stable. They also put air cushions around the supports to protect the shelf supports. But in this age of wireless sensor networks, why not put a system in place to monitor the shelf stability continuously? And that is exactly what researchers from the Fraunhofer Institute for Microelectronic Circuits and Systems IMS in Duisburg, Germany created in collaboration with IWS Handling GmbH. What the researchers did was to place pressure sensors within the protective air cushions and connect them all with a wireless network. When a cushion experiences a pressure change, as from an impact to the cushion, it's sent, via the wireless network, back to a central control station. Warehouse managers can not only see where and when an impact or series of impacts happened, they also have a record of how severe a hit it was, allowing them to send someone to check if a particular support takes a really serious wallop. You can read more in the news article, "Crash sensor boosts safety in warehouses."

Gesture Recognition for Smokers
Smartphones and other handheld electronics now use a variety of types of gesture recognition to improve their user-friendliness. As the motion sensors become more widely adopted, they're proving very attractive for medical researchers who are trying to teach devices to recognize various types of human motion. Distinguishing between a fall and a controlled descent, for instance. Researchers from Rutgers University's Center for Autonomic Computing are applying wireless motion sensors to smokers to gain information about their smoking habits. Theodore Walls from the University of Rhode Island is a behavioral scientist studying smoking behavior to (ideally) figure out better ways to help smokers quit.

Described in Tabish Talib's Daily Targum article, "Sensors aim to monitor smoker activity", the project uses inertial sensors at wrist and elbow coupled with a computer running a learning algorithm to learn the particular sequence of arm motions that accompany a smoker in the act of smoking and record how often and for how long those motions occur. As Dr. Gregory House from TV's House, MD is so fond of saying, "everybody lies" and smokers self-reporting just how often they light up aren't always completely honest about the extent of their smoking habit. The desire is that a system such as this could provide better data for healthcare professionals who help smokers kick the habit.

Down to Earth Terahertz Wave Detection
Astronomers use terahertz wave detectors to study cosmic dust clouds and the universe's background microwave radiation. Because terahertz waves can provide images somewhere between those of X-rays and general optical imaging, they have a lot of potential for a variety of types of medical and security screening: telling skin from tumor or seeing through packaging or spotting concealed weapons. However, the detectors have to be cooled down close to absolute zero to operate. Researchers at QMC Instruments Ltd., working with Cardiff University's Astronomical instrumentation Group, have developed the KIDCAM, a terahertz detector that uses modern electrical coolers to chill it sufficiently for operation, rather than using liquefied gases (and all the hassle and hooplah that using them entails) to get it sufficiently cold. Further, the researchers can tune the frequency—and block specific frequencies—to get the best results from the KIDCAM for a given application. The news item "Far sighted space technology finds practical uses on Earth" from the Royal Astronomical Society, contains further details.

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