A key challenge to making IoT succeed on a massive scale is continuing to invest in innovation and develop new use cases while at the same time continuing to reduce the cost of the IoT’s enabling technologies.
It’s a difficult balance to manage, but ideally results in enabling technologies that advance IoT performance and capabilities, but physically become increasingly smaller and more integrated, introducing form factors and cost points that make all the new use case ideas more viable.
That’s what’s happening with the enabling technologies behind image sensors used in security cameras and visual scanner equipment and devices. For example, with the emergence of hyperspectral sensing solutions, future image sensors will be able to detect, collect and analyze much more data than earlier-generation image sensors, but at lower cost, translating to much broader use case viability and market potential.
Hyperspectral sensing detects light and color differences along narrow electromagnetic wavelengths, translating to more granular data that can be collected from a specific image than the naked human eye or the white-balance image sensors in many digital cameras can detect. And as we have learned from early IoT developments, more data equals greater insight.
Smaller sensor, bigger opportunity
One of the companies leading the charge in the development of hyperspectral sensing solutions is Belgian start-up Spectricity, which recently announced a €14 million ($16 million U.S.) Series B funding round to help it accelerate the development and mass production of hyperspectral sensors and imagers designed to be deployed in common smartphones, other consumer wearables and a range of IoT devices to be used in high-volume, low-cost applications.
Spectricity CEO Vincent Mouret explained how hyperspectral sensing could be used in different scenarios, telling Fierce Electronics via email that “a spectrometer can measure some specific light wavelengths to differentiate fresh food from spoiled food in the food industry or in a grocery store. All of these differences of "colors," i.e wavelengths, may be not perceived by your eyes but.. can be by analyzing the reflected light of the food. It is the same for sick plants and more generally, in agriculture.”
Mouret added that hyperspectral sensing also could be used in the pharmaceutical industry to identify skin conditions, chemicals and the effectiveness of different medicines based on skin health, condition or color.
“However, the spectrometer itself cannot do it alone,” he said. “The spectrometer identifies differences of the light wavelengths, then specific software must analyze the data and what this means (fresh vs. spoiled, good vs. bad, fake vs. real). A hyper spectrometer imager [also] can improve night vision and have more precise 3D face recognition.”
At this stage, hyperspectral sensing technology remains for the most part too expensive to be incorporated into anything more than large cameras and specialty scanning equipment used in lab environments. Putting the technology into more mainstream devices will unlock many more applications and more easily accessible insights, Mouret said, adding, “The integration of a hyperspectral imager in a smartphone will open the door to multiple applications with eventual access to databases in the cloud.”
Made small enough and inexpensive enough to be mass-produced, hyperspectral sensors could replace the current sensor used for white balance in a device like smartphone, bringing more advanced image sensing while leveraging the ever-increasing resolution capabilities of smartphone cameras. “It will simply add multiple capabilities and new applications in your hands,” Mouret said.
That brings us to Spectricity’s key contribution: It claims to be the only company that can make chip-sized, professional-grade hyperspectral sensors small enough to fit into a device like a smartphone. Such chip-sized spectrometers could fuel production of more than 300 million chips per year in 2024 and lead to a wider array of applications, according to a paper published earlier this year by authors Jacek Kulakowski and Benoît d'Humières.
From innovation to commercialization
Spectricity’s innovation in this arena came from Belgian R&D firm imec, from which Spectricity was created as a spin-off to pursue the emerging market opportunity. The new company’s Series A investors included venture capital fund imec.xpand and Belgian investment firm XTRION. The new Series B investors included Atlantic Bridge, Capricorn Fusion China Fund and Shanghai Semiconductor Equipment and Material Fund. The latest round brought Spectricity to €20 million ($23.5 millon U.S.) in total funding to date.
Peter Vanbekbergen, partner at imec.xpand said in a statement announcing the funding, “The formation of Spectricity is a prime example of remarkable semiconductor innovation born in Europe, based on unique technology developed at imec. The best companies start with a great technology base, with founders coming together to identify a big problem and line up an expert investment team to help them succeed. As part of that team, we’re focused on providing Spectricity with unique value and networking.”
Spectricity plans to partner with “a standard CMOS foundry” to start high-volume manufacturing of its own hyperspectral sensors that the company will sell itself, Mouret said. He also explained that Spectricity is engaging with software and application developers to create software to allow hyperspectral sensor-driven applications to run on smartphones and connect with cloud resources.
“We plan to sample with customers by the first half of 2022, with production anticipated by the first half of 2023,” Mouret said. “Our goal is to have our devices integrated in commercial equipment in 2023.”