The Versatility of Sensors

E-mail Melanie Martella

One of the characteristics of sensors of which I am most fond is their versatility; a color sensor designed for the consumer or industrial automation market ends up built into agricultural machinery to check how ripe the grain is at harvest. An aerospace sensor ends up being used when drilling for oil. The increase in the variety of sensors available has spawned an explosion in creative sensor applications.

I can't speak to other industries, but I know that there is a great deal of cross-pollination that happens within the sensor industry. This is, in part, because sensors are designed to measure a change in their environment and that environment can be anywhere: in an engine compartment, in a refinery, on a packaging line, down a borehole, in a field, in factories, hospitals, and homes. What happens frequently is that a sensor designed originally for a specific market vertical finds a home in another industry entirely. How does this happen? As far as I can tell, it's mostly from someone with a specific problem to solve discovering an existing technology that can be used to do just that. (I happen to think that this is one of the more fun aspects to Sensors Expo; the attendees talk to the exhibitors and the exhibitors talk to each other and at some future date wonderful sensor applications happen. It's magical.)

There's a lovely article in The Economist talking about new uses for microphones that illustrates this point beautifully. In "Teaching old microphones new tricks" the author talks about how different people are using an established technology—the microphone—to do some rather sophisticated things, such as identifying stress by analyzing voices, assessing lung function or activity level, and improving driver safety. And those are just the human-centric applications. There are other applications where sounds can be used to assess machine health and function; to detect blockages in feed chutes, for instance. All of these applications pose the question "What can sound tell us?" The answer may rely on some very clever and specialized software working with the microphone, but that doesn't change the fact that the microphone is a surprisingly versatile tool.

Publications such as Sensors and events such as Sensors Expo & Conference educate their readers and attendees on what technologies exist and how they're being used so that the readers and attendees can apply these technologies creatively and productively. If you're attending Sensors Expo next week, I'll see you there!

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