I'm just back from Electronica in Munich— truly the gathering of the worldwide electronics marketplace. While exhibitors came from every corner of the globe, most of the design engineers attending naturally came from Europe, mainly Germany.
If you attended this year's event, you know what I mean when I say "what a show!" It was a chance to see the latest in every sort of electronics component and specialty, with 1.7 million ft2 of exhibition floor space and more than 3000 exhibitors and 75,000 attendees—and all run with renowned German efficiency.
With moving sidewalks connecting the 14 exhibit halls, the facility was the best I've ever experienced. I efficiently buzzed from one end of the 1.7 million ft2 to the other, yet it was frustrating for an electronics "generalist" like me trying to see overall trends and highlights at such a mega-event.
I also tried to sample the three user forums that made up the conference program: "Automotive Innovation," "Wireless Communications," and "World of MEMS." Each forum had its own exhibit area with on-floor presentation podiums, offering a good view into three of the hottest macro trends impacting electronic design. The future really gets interesting, I think, when you start mixing and matching these technologies, opening true new horizons for remote data capture and communications.
The combination of MEMS sensors and wireless networking is rich with possibilities. Consider ingestible and implantable medical devices that relay vital data for medical analysis—cardiac pacemakers, cochlear implants (electrically powered inner-ear prostheses), or the "ingestible scope" we covered in our July 19 issue (ED Online 8371). And, there were developments in another life-and-death matter for Europeans—the 2006 World Cup soccer championship. MEMS sensors will be placed in balls and in players' shin guards to relay data to fans from the middle of the match.
The mass applications for sensor networks will come from machine-to-machine (M2M) communications, especially from industrial applications using ZigBee and similar technologies to read measuring equipment, monitor installations, perform system maintenance, and control robotics. According to estimates from Forrester Research, by the end of next year, the number of machine-to-machine messages will surpass the number of messages sent by humans. (Consider 20 billion SMS text messages sent last year in Germany alone!)
Examples of M2M messaging were on exhibit too. Germany's Phoenix Contact works with customers' tank storage facilities and sewage treatment plans to remotely monitor fluid levels and control pumps. France's Cornois Systems showcased technology for remotely reading water, gas, and electric meters.
By relaying M2M data to GSM networks, remote data collection can connect with the extensive infrastructure of established cellular networks. For example, railroad freight cars can report maintenance problems and exact GPS location via SMS messaging.
NEW FRONTIERS FOR SENSORS
I had a chance to hear about some of the emerging ideas from Micron Technologies. (Micron's image chip is in the previously mentioned ingestible scope). Curtis Smith of the company's Emerging Markets Imaging Group envisions high-volume medical applications. The goal is to get disposable device costs (yes, the ingestible scope is NOT to be reused) below the cost of sanitizing and reusing traditional scope equipment.
Vision sensors coupled with software for "scene understanding" enhances automotive safety (ED Online 9089). The same intelligence can be applied to host of new application ideas. For example, Smith suggests, intelligent elevators would avoid stopping at floors once a car is full, hold the door for approaching passengers, and save energy while increasing efficiency.
In the military, says Smith, vision sensors can be used in disposable unattended ground sensors (DUGS). These small, camouflaged image sensors could be scattered across a wide surveillance area to provide heretofore-unavailable ground intelligence. The sensors could also go into "intelligent" land mines that would determine if the approaching person is a combatant or civilian.
Such creative thinking about new applications lets design engineers like yourselves realize these new applications—and creates an exciting future indeed!