Sensors Central

Wireless's Domestic Turf War

Three major wireless communications protocol rivals have made new moves in home automation , while energy-harvesting pioneer pursues its own path to the building market.


Protocol Punches: ZigBee, Z-Wave, Insteon

Due for release in Q4 and based on Motorola's HCS08 microcontroller, Freescale Semiconductor's BeeKit is based on ZigBee and ZigBee's underlying IEEE 802.15.4 standard. The developer's kit will include BeeStack software, designed to be "fully compliant with the ZigBee Alliance's next-generation home control protocol stack, which includes the home automation profile." That means it will comply with the update that the ZigBee Alliance will announce later this year. (The home automation component is a stack profile that sits on top of the general-purpose ZigBee software stack, explains Alliance spokesman Kevin Schader.) Pricing for BeeKit, including BeeStack, will start around $995 per license seat; developers can get training on it at the Freescale Technology Forum in Orlando, FL, July 24–27. (,

Meanwhile Zensys Inc., developer of the Z-Wave protocol that is specific to home automation, capped its Series C funding with contributions from Intel Capital and Cisco Systems—both of which invested last year in Crossbow Technology, another wireless sensor networking company. Curt Nichols, vice president and managing director of Intel Capital's Digital Home Fund, says, "wireless and home entertainment control will play a key role in the future of the digital home and we see significant potential for Z-Wave given its interoperability, time-to-market advantage, reliability and low cost." (


Finally, SmartLabs Inc.'s Insteon protocol won the High Tech Award for Innovative Technology of the Year from AeA (formerly the American Electronics Association). The company says, "Because the technology is affordable, it keeps the product price for consumer devices down. And, because it is simple for the homeowner to install and it is reliable, products with Insteon can be sold by mass-market retailers, such as Home Depot, and by dealers, distributors, and installers (e.g. electricians)." (,

Conservation Goal Dictates Alternative Path

Because EnOcean is bent on energy harvesting, the company has forged its own, proprietary path. No other communications protocol provides the target range with so little power consumption, explains a spokesman with Ad Hoc Electronics, EnOcean's new partner.

Together, the companies are targeting building retrofit markets—both home and commercial—by pairing Ad Hoc's new LVRX-4 low-voltage relay receiver with EnOcean's doorbell-size STM250 self-powered proximity sensor. The combination lets building owners add security coverage to additional rooms, remodels, unattached buildings, even cabinets or movable assets within the buildings. EnOcean released the STM250 last fall for integration with new designs; LVRX-4 makes it suitable for use with existing ones. (,


Materials Innovations May Challenge Noncontact-Sensor Growth

The development of "active," noncontact sensors based on Hall effect, magnetoresistive, and variable-reluctance transformer technologies is penetrating the established market of "passive," contact sensors—and increasingly taking market share for automotive speed and position applications, says market research firm Strategy Analytics. "This is being driven by the need for improved reliability as well as increased functionality and accuracy," notes senior analyst Simon Schofield.

But innovation in materials—using strengthening compounds in the resistive track to reduce wear—will provide higher reliability and longer life, and offer low-cost alternatives to buyers. Alps Electric's new resistive contact materials, for instance, may offer a life of one billion operational cycles and thus could create new interest in passive sensors for highly embedded functions. (,

Safety and Security Soar, Machine Vision Enters Automotive On Ramp

A recent study by TRW Automotive Inc. reports that 74% of respondents say vehicle safety features and options are more important to them than they were five years ago. And all of the entries on Top 10 High-Tech Car Safety Technologies—which the automotive information source recommends consumers look for when car shopping—are sensor based. Most are self-explanatory:

  • 1. Adaptive cruise control/collision mitigation (to maintain distance from other traffic)
  • 2. Tire pressure monitoring
  • 3. Blind-spot detection/side-assist/collision warning
  • 4. Lane-departure warning/wake-you-up safety
  • 5. Rollover prevention/mitigation
  • 6. Occupant-sensitive/dual-stage airbags
  • 7. Emergency brake assist/collision mitigation
  • 8. Adaptive headlights/night-vision assist
  • 9. Rearview camera
  • 10. Emergency response (which can turn on interior and hazard lights, unlock doors, shut off fuel flow, disconnect the battery terminal from the alternator, and make crash details available to emergency personnel) (

It's no wonder, then, that The Freedonia Group Inc. predicts global demand for light-vehicle OEM automotive sensors will advance 7.4% annually—more rapidly than vehicle production itself—to $14 billion in 2010. The company's World Automotive Sensors report says that in developed markets, only new sensing technologies exhibit strong growth prospects. While engine and drivetrain applications represent the largest category in sensor use, growth will be limited to sensors for fuel efficiency. Safety and security applications promise the greatest growth potential, followed by emissions control. Emerging markets have more basic sensor needs, many of which require technologies already recognized as commodities. Regardless of application or geography, though, sensor suppliers face a continuing mandate to deliver more capability at lower cost. (


New Market for Machine Vision

Two machine vision companies say they are up to the task. Omni-Vision Technologies Inc. is, for the first time, supplying CameraChips to a leading automotive equipment supplier for use in lane departure warning (LDW) and rearview-camera systems. (


And Cognex Corp., the largest supplier of machine vision sensors, just got larger with its simultaneous entry into "in-vehicle vision." In a news release, "Cognex Enters New Market for Machine Vision," the company announced its acquisition of AssistWare Technology Inc., maker of the SafeTRAC LDW system. Cognex chairman and CEO Dr. Robert J. Shillman expects the in-vehicle market to be "very large and potentially quite profitable."

Initially, Cognex will expand AssistWare's product to address collision warning, blind spot detection, headlight dimming and aiming, rain detection/wiper control, and adaptive cruise control. Later, Cognex plans to offer "inward-looking" sensors to address applications now covered by other technologies: Driver recognition, and determination of occupant size and position for intelligent air-bag deployment. (,

A Light Touch

CBC News was one of the outlets reporting on a new sensor under development at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. The technology uses light, as well as semiconductive material particles, to image objects and enable an astoundingly delicate sense of touch—to distinguish, for instance, among letters on a coin. The report is drawn from a paper published in the journal Science. (,

Under Predator's Watch

CNN correspondent Brent Sadler, who is on assignment in Afghanistan, tells of a close encounter with a sensor-rich Predator UAV, "the U.S. military's most sophisticated killing machine in the war on terror." With Predator, U.S. military personnel can locate and destroy targets from the other side of the world. (

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