The demand for the Internet of Things (IoT) devices has led to the introduction of a lot of interesting products. These IoT devices collect data from all kinds of places: from your home, from your shoes, from your body and from your computer.
In many cases, what makes this possible is the innovation of sensors. We are seeing a huge growth in the use of sensors because they are getting smaller and lower in cost. As long as new uses for the technology are discovered, the sensors will continue to drop in both price and size.
A good example of this is when the automobile industry started incorporating accelerometers into their airbag technology. The price quickly dove from hundreds of dollars to tens of dollars and now billions of accelerometers are used in a wide variety of devices (such as smartphones) and the price per unit has dropped to one US dollar.
Paul Saffo used accelerometers as a point of departure for his 1997 prediction that sensors would be the next big revolution in information technology, and events have certainly born him out. Sensors are everywhere. Your car is full of them and your phone is full of them. Sensors are changing the world.
Common sensors are showing up everywhere
For smartphones, common sensors are camera (vision), microphones, accelerometers, gyroscopes and magnetometers. Other common sensors include temperature, pressure, flow and vibration. The big advance for these common sensors is that they are getting combined on a single chip which makes them extremely easy to use. You can now get one chip that has three accelerometers, three gyroscopes and a magnetometer for about $5. This multi-sensor chip trend will continue and dramatically lower the cost of each individual sensor.
Chemical sensors enable “lab on a chip”
We will continue to see growth in chemical sensors, especially “lab on a chip” and paper-based sensors. With a “lab on a chip” fluids flow through the chip and get analyzed. We are seeing gene chips as well as health monitoring chips. Driven by faster analysis time and extremely small fluid requirements, we will continue to see integration of more laboratory functions on a single chip. Additionally, we anticipate rapid advancements in paper-based chemical sensors. One of the most common is the glucose strip used it to test blood sugar levels. These paper-based sensors are really low cost and disposable. We also see paper-based sensors being used in clinical diagnosis, food quality control and environmental monitoring.
Fiber optic sensors
Fiber optic sensors are very useful because they don’t use wires and are non-conducting. This means that they are safe to touch and you can insert them into the body without fear of shock. Fiber optic sensors are also small (only a quarter of a millimeter in diameter) which makes them suitable for a wide variety of tasks. They are able to handle harsh environments where they can measure pressure, temperature, strain and flow depending upon how you configure them. You can also measure along the length of the fiber which means you have effectively hundreds of sensors in one strand. The biggest problem with fiber optics is that the electronics to create a signal is expensive. Currently, it is around $1,000 per unit, however, we will see this price drop as they are more widely deployed to different markets. It may have a cost curve that is similar to accelerometers as their usage proliferated beyond air bags and cell phones. We will watch for fiber optic sensors to continue to break new ground in the industry.
Sensor innovation has been driving much of the current new markets like Internet of Things (IoT) and wearable devices. And it promises to continue to be at the heart of future growth markets.