The exhibit hall at Sensors Expo & Conference 2006 (www.sensorsexpo.com) boasted more than 200 displays this year, and on opening day we editors joined the crowd of attendees. Besides looking for generally nifty things, our mission was to visit the booths of each company whose product(s) had been nominated for Best of Sensors Expo awards. At the conclusion of the first day we handed out 12 prizes and two honorable mentions, including four Gold, three Silver, and five Bronze awards.
The pool of nominees was so good that judging was quite difficult (see the sidebar, "Here's the Program," for details on the process and criteria). This, I think, is an indication of the continuing advancement of the sensors and related products. Here's another indicator of the growth of sensor technology—and applications: More than a quarter of the companies and organizations (65 to be exact) exhibited at Sensors Expo for the first time.
Besides the voices quoted in this article, the editors are indebted to a number of folks—including Deb Lickness of John Deere, Wayne Manges of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and Dr. Peter Fuhr of Apprion Inc.—for their helpful observations and technical assistance that informed our judging.
- 1. The G 2 Motion Sensor from Aichi Steel Corp. (www.aichi-steel.co.jp|~www.aichi-steel.co.jp/ ) integrates a 3-axis magnetic sensor and a 3-axis accelerometer, each with controller ICs, in an itty-bitty package. It determines the attitude of mobile devices relative to geomagnetism and gravity and also calculates other aspects of movement such as acceleration, translational speed, and rotational speed.
At the Aichi Steel booth, a G2 -equipped cell phone, loaded with a star/constellation map, used a GPS sensor to determine your location so that when you pointed the phone at the sky, it would tell you which constellation you'd see. Alternatively, you could choose a star from a list and let the G2 point you in the right direction to see it.
- 1. MoteWorks MWS200A, by Crossbow Technology (www.xbow.com|~www.xbow.com/ ), is a development platform that helps OEMs—in disciplines such as industrial automation and control, building automation, asset management, and environmental monitoring—to easily create complete wireless sensor networks, and thus focus on other aspects of product and system development. It is the first platform known to address all three tiers of wireless sensor networks:
- 2. Device tier (operating system, mesh network stack, over-the-air-programming, cross-development tools)
- 3. Gateway tier (enterprise server gateway middleware)
- 4. Client tier (visualization, analysis and management)
We're betting this "complete package" will help people implement wireless networking with greater ease. Senior editor Melanie Martella says, "[it] lets you develop applications without having to stress about the interplay of the various levels." Contributing editor Tom Kevan adds that the gateway (middleware), provides a missing piece required for broad adoption of wireless sensor networking and large installations. "TinyOS and OEM hardware modules will help scale the integration into the small units that people are looking for," he says.
- 1. The MLX90316 Rotary Position Sensor IC (www.melexis.com/ProdMain.aspx?nID=566|~www.melexis.com/ProdMain.aspx?nID=566/ ) by Melexis Inc., the subject of a feature in our March 2006 issue (www.sensorsmag.com/sensors/article/articleDetail.jsp?id=313845|~www.sensorsmag.com/sensors/article/articleDetail.jsp?id=313845 ), is a CMOS Hall effect sensor that can sense all three magnetic flux density components at a single point, and provide noncontact position sensing in harsh environments. This is a feat not viable with other technologies, yet frequently required in automotive and industrial applications. "I thought highly of adding a concentrator disk that aligns the flux lines in the Z-axis direction and allows sensing in the X and Y planes. I also liked its ratiometric aspect that makes it insensitive to assorted variations," says executive editor Stephanie Henkel. Ramsden adds that even a preproduction model he'd seen earlier worked "frighteningly well."
- 2. Solidica Chorus is an ultrarugged sensor from Solidica Inc. (www.solidica.com|~www.solidica.com/ ) that measures temperature, vibration, and 3D acceleration, adds GPS/dead reckoning location data, and then transmits the data wirelessly to any ZigBee-compliant or 802.15.4 platform. All that functionality is impressive, but even more impressive is Solidica's unique ultrasonic consolidation process, which embeds the sensors in a solid piece of metal, enabling operation in even the harshest environments and allows the case to become the antenna.
"Insane!" says Martella, who interviewed the developers. She reports that Dr. Dawn White, an ex-Ford welding expert, had the idea of using ultrasonic welding to layer thin sheets of metal together—a cold form of metal rapid prototyping. The company's booth displayed a version of the sensor designed for the chain gun on top of armored vehicles to track shots fired.
- 1. The Airmar WeatherStation (www.airmartechnology.com/Airmar2005/Ex21/WStation/wood.htm|~www.airmartechnology.com/Airmar2005/Ex21/WStation/wood.htm ) from Airmar Technology Corp. calculates apparent wind speed and direction, barometric pressure, air temperature, relative humidity, dew point, and wind chill temperature. Yes, all that! And an optional internal compass and GPS allow calculation of true wind speed and direction as well. The company says it designed the unit to meet a growing need—among crop growers, construction companies, outdoor leisure centers, avionics and vehicle manufacturers, chemical and steel processing plants, and others—for real-time, site-specific weather information.
- 2. With its BRR Fiber Optic Readout System (www.bluerr.com/products/systems.php|~www.bluerr.com/products/systems.php/ ), Blue Road Research takes structural testing to a new level. It lets you determine damage and strain gradients for any structure in which a fiber-optic sensor can be embedded (examples include composite propane and hydrogen tanks, repair bondlines, structural joints, and bridge panels). It makes multidimensional measurements, allowing assessment not only along the surface of a structure, but across its thickness, too. "I'm very favorably impressed by this system's ability to monitor both static and dynamic faults in structures," says Henkel. "Heaven knows there's a howling need for such inspection/monitoring equipment."
- 3. National Instruments' NI CompactDAQ (www.ni.com/compactdaq|~www.ni.com/compactdaq/ ) is an elegant, portable USB-based modular data acquisition system designed for ease of use. One-fourth the size of other data acquisition instruments, NI CompactDAQ combines the plug-and-play simplicity of USB with the performance and flexibility of hot-swappable modular instrumentation. It can simultaneously stream high-speed analog input, analog output, digital input, and digital output over a single USB connection.
Editorial advisory board member Strether Smith says one of the many things that impresses him about this is that "it is a good USB interface so it is essentially host independent." Smith once built a PC-based system for the structural dynamics lab at Apple computer and says he is going to propose a new system that uses this hardware but with an Apple host. "One neat thing is that LabVIEW runs on both PCs and the new Macs, so my old software will work with the new hardware and my friends at Apple won't have to hide the PC in a corner any more."
- 1. What excites us about IRSource (www.axetris.com/downloads/irsourcef25.pdf|~www.axetris.com/downloads/irsourcef25.pdf ) from Axetris, the microsystems division of Leister Technologies LLC, is its potential to enable the growing number of safety and environmental applications requiring gas sensors. The product is what its name implies, but unlike common filament bulb products, it is a compact, thin-film structure with no moving parts that offers low thermal mass, low power consumption, and fast modulation.
Axetris says IRSource will take sophisticated laboratory gas detection to handheld devices, allowing instant results that will be particularly useful for emergency and military applications. Additionally, Ramsden points out that these miniature, self-contained sources will probably enable new applications in spectroscopy on the basis of cost and size.
- 1. Use of the computer industry's universal serial bus (USB) is a trend in data acquisition, and a number of products, such as NI's CompactDAQ (see above) and Fiberbyte's USB-inSync (www.sensorsmag.com/sensors/article/articleDetail.jsp?id=313847|~www.sensorsmag.com/sensors/article/articleDetail.jsp?id=313847 ) have taken advantage of it. The low-cost, 8-channel USB-5203 temperature measurement module from Measurement Computing (www.mccdaq.com|~www.mccdaq.com/ ) does, too, and also incorporates other particularly useful features.
"What I like about this is that it accepts four types of temperature sensors (thermocouples, RTDs, thermistors, and semiconductor devices) and automatically linearizes their data according to sensor type. I also admire its compact size," says Henkel. But we also admire its ability to store data on CompactFlash or deliver direct to a PC via USB, which, Martella points out, makes it nicely adaptable.
- 1. Whereas other ZigBee radios are married to particular microcontrollers, the Ember EM260 (www.ember.com/products/chips/em260.html|~www.ember.com/products/chips/em260.html ) network processor from Ember Corp. lets OEMs embed ZigBee wireless networking capabilities into their products using any number of microcontrollers from STMicroelectronics, Amtel, Texas Instruments, and others. We like this aspect very much. The EM260 is designed specifically for use with EmberZNet, Ember's ZigBee-compliant sensor mesh networking software.
- 2. Ashcroft Inc.'s Xmitr with LZT Sensor (www.ashcroft.com/library/XMTR-1.pdf|~www.ashcroft.com/library/XMTR-1.pdf ) is a pressure gauge that works (with a noncontact displacement sensor) by measuring the tip travel of a Bourdon tube. "The goal was to combine a noncontact displacement sensor and pressure gauge into an instrument that would cost less to manufacture," says Ashcroft. The company also points out that, at $99, it is less expensive than equally capable instruments by at least a factor of two. I agree with Henkel's observation that this is a very clever design, "to measure pressure and displacement with one little device." And, she adds, "there's a clear need for it."
- 3. The Raztec Series 3 Hall Effect Current Transducer from Raztec Ltd. (www.raztec.co.nz|~www.raztec.co.nz/ ) of New Zealand detects current and interfaces directly to a microcontroller's I/O port. "While current sensors have been around since the dawn of time, a component-level device with integrated ADC and digital serial interface is novel," says Ramsden. And, we think it will make designs simpler.
Adding wireless communications capability to a product is not new, and in the future this feature will be expected for many sensors. The ELF (economical load and force) measurement system from Tekscan deftly demonstrates the effect. At the basis of the Wireless ELF System (www.tekscan.com/flexiforce/systems.html) is Tekscan's impressive FlexiForce sensor—useful in all sorts of applications, including grip force measurement, garment pressures, and safety assessment. "Their product has always been pretty slick, but attaching leads limited its applications," says Henkel. That's for sure. There's a lot of talk about wireless communications saving thousands of dollars in wiring and installation costs—but this isn't about saving on wiring, it's about opening up new applications that were previously too cumbersome to consider. The Wireless ELF System is empowered with the ability to measure remotely using a USB-compatible receiver.
It's true that Honeywell has products with greater capabilities, but the "wow" factor in the company's HMC1043 3-Axis Magnetic Sensor (www.ssec.honeywell.com/magnetic/datasheets/hmc1043.pdf) is its seriously small size: 3 3 3 3 1.4 mm (don't sneeze!). This 3-axis surface-mount sensor array, designed for low-field magnetic sensing, promises to be a handy option for manufacturing consumer electronics such as wireless phones, GPS receivers, and watches. But its size, combined with its low price, causes Ramsden to speculate that it's bound to open up new applications.
Here's The Program
With the Best of Sensors Expo awards, the editors of Sensors seek to honor products we feel embody the most useful innovations and will have the greatest impact on sensor-based design in the future.We ask vendors to nominate their own products, explaining why they are important. Then we decipher the implications of the releases. Determining the implications is a major factor in our deliberations. When we look at the nominations we ask ourselves about impact (that is,whether the product has the potential to change the way people work) as well as whether it serves a real need. Other criteria critical to the process: Timeliness and availability (the product must be new to the market since last year's Sensors Expo, available for purchase by the time of the show, and publicly viewable at the event) and distinctiveness (the product must be unique or at least appreciably different from other items on the market).