Sensors monitor sweat to soap in IoT

Sensors19 crowd chows down after studying sensors. (Hamblen)

Sensors Expo in San Jose attracted nearly 10,000 attendees, including design engineers, who viewed thousands of electronic sensors to detect just about anything: oil pressure, speed, weight—even sweat.

Information contained in sweat can be useful for fitness freaks and doctors making a diagnosis, explained Hnin Yin Nyein, a researcher at the Berkeley Sensor and Actuator Center.  Examining sweat is non-invasive and can be collected to learn about electrolyte levels, metabolites and more, helping diagnose diseases such as cystic fibrosis and tumor necrosis, she said.

Nyein described a wearable sweat monitor being developed that “can provide a more holistic view of the sweat profile for lactase and dehydration monitoring, body water balance, sodium and heavy metal detection.”  The information about the sweat can be gathered electronically and continuously, viewed on a cell phone and analyzed for a period of time.

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This was the 34th year for Sensors Expo and its largest, an indication of the growing interest in the field. 

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On the show floor, startup Stockvue showed an autonomous inventory management system that relies on sensing the weight of goods on a shelf. In a demonstration, a bin full of 1,000 machine bolts was being weighed electronically, with a total shown on a display nearby. Take away one bolt and the number dropped to 999 bolts.

The same process was shown for individually-wrapped caramel candies, and could be applied to water bottles or just about any product being stored in a warehouse or store shelf. In a hospital it could be used to tell when a patient’s IV fluid was low.

Stockvue has signed one manufacturer and one distributor using the system at hundreds of sites, according to CEO Div Harish. The data from the sensors can be stored in the cloud for inventory managers to monitor from a central location, saving the expense of sending personnel to count or weigh merchandise. “The savings on inventory management can be phenomenal,” he said.

Stockvue is technically an incubator of Loadstar Sensors and Harish is looking for first round investors. Customers could be expected to pay up to $2,000 per month per item being weighed, which could be expensive for thousands of bolts or bulk candies, but probably would still total less than half of traditional inventory management systems, Harish said.

Avnet showed a Microsoft Azure Sphere cloud connection to a smoothie blender, just an example of how the cloud can be used to store data from a distance on the operations of all types of machines. A trend at the show from many vendors was showing the use of AI to evaluate the performance of machines for predictive maintenance. If a machine, robot or process slows down, wobbles or does something wonky, it might be time to replace a part.

At the Omron booth, an edge computing facial recognition system was being shown as part of an advertising kiosk.  An Omron camera module installed in a facial recognition kiosk by Renesas detected a person’s face and predicted his or her age, then pumped out an ad that might be suitable for that person. (This reporter was judged to be 15 years younger than in reality, but exceptions can be made in demonstrations.)

Another booth operated by muRata showed off the lasting value of RFID chips used to track computer cables and medical equipment. The company sells RFID chips barely bigger than a grain of salt.

At a Thursday morning keynote address, Gerardo Giaretta extolled the virtues of 5G wireless for IoT, while also describing some preparations industrial users may face. If a company plans to monitor robots operating at high speed in a plant wirelessly with 5g, it might be necessary to use several redundant 5G base stations at the plant to ensure that packets of data consistently reach the robots for control. “You might need three base stations in case one gets blocked,” Giaretta said.

Giaretta also said that industrial customers in coming years could face a situation where they might need government approval for use of 5G licensed spectrum within the walls of a  manufacturing plant. That approach would eliminate dealing with a wireless carrier, but would introduce a new set of regulatory demands on the private customer. In that example, regulators would want to be sure that a plant’s 5G signal doesn’t radiate onto a nearby property, causing interference.

Not many industrial users are likely to be aware of the regulatory changes affecting licensed spectrum that are coming with 5G, according to interviews with keynote attendees. “I’d suspect not many industries are aware” of much of what’s coming, said Jared Weiner, senior analyst at VDC Research.

Weiner, a long-time observer of sensors research, said Sensors Expo showed him some “interesting, unexpected use cases.” One especially was memorable—using sensors to detect when soap dispensers are empty, sending the information to maintenance staff to refill them. That kind of information would be especially valuable for a large convention center or office building.

From sweat to soap, sensors are being connected to everything.

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