Electronic Design

Potential Sensor Applications Know No Limits

Schmitz168X144We take sensors for granted. For example, public restrooms are rife with sensors. The lights go on when we enter. Toilets flush when we stand and leave the stall. Touchless faucets and soap dispensers complement automatic towel dispensers and air-blowing hand dryers. But sensors don’t just make our lives easier. Some also serve an important purpose.

Cell phones use proximity sensors to turn off their touchscreens when users bring them close to their ear so accidental touches won’t interrupt calls. These sensors also greatly reduce the power dissipated in the phone since the display consumes a lot of power. Priced less than $1, these sensors stretch battery life and pay for themselves multiple times over.

On The Road And At Home

New sensors like those that enable cars to parallel park themselves marvel us. In contrast, there are simple applications like light sensing. Do we even notice the light sensor included in many rearview mirrors that adjusts when the lights from the car behind us are bright?

Actually, automobiles are packed with sensor technologies. The automakers have to keep up with each other, after all. They also want to offer differentiating features that enhance the driver’s convenience or enjoyment. Some sensors make the car easier to drive, while others more tightly control the atmosphere for the passengers.

Most importantly, a slew of sensors protects the driver and passengers in addition to pedestrians and property in the area. For example, sensors detect passengers and enable their airbags. Sensors also measure the air pressure in tires by monitoring the speed of the valve as it spins around.

Another treasure trove of sensors can be found in our own homes. We are used to security lights, sometimes also called motion lights. Temperature sensors alert us when the oven has reached the desired temperature. Thermostats keep us comfortable. We trust smoke detectors with our safety. And, nightlights turn on when it gets dark.

And can you really imagine standing up and walking over to the television to change channels? There’s no going back to the time before infrared sensors teamed up with codes bursting from infrared LEDs to create the proverbial couch potato.

The Next Generation

Next-generation sensors for home use are already starting to appear. Home security systems can monitor every window and door, alerting you when one is opened without your consent. Light switches already can turn on the lights when you enter a room. The next versions will be touchless. A hand gesture can be used to dim or raise the brightness.

Temperature could be controlled the same way. Each room could have an input panel to supplement a central control unit. This system could save energy by closing off unused rooms and redirecting air through the use of vents and direct interaction with the heating and cooling systems.

Do you have solar panels? Wouldn’t it make sense to have those solar panels track the path of the sun for maximum illumination? What other new applications can we find for sensors in the home? Think about how much safer a stovetop would be if it was disabled when a child was in front of it playing with the controls. Protective parents might pay extra for outlets that disable themselves when a child is near and nothing is plugged in.

Though we’ve already identified many sensors at work in bathrooms, more items can be automated. Do you drag yourself out of bed and head to the shower? Why can’t the water heater start warming the water when I first get up instead of after I’ve been shocked by that first cold spurt?

Since water is a precious resource, what if I don’t want to run the shower for three or four minutes before I climb in? Yes, on demand water heaters have taken a big leap forward. Let’s take it further. Perhaps the shower could automatically douse us with warm water when we stand below the shower head. Then, what if the sensor could tell different heights and body shapes so it automatically sprays water with the preferred temperature and spray pattern? 

In the kitchen, imagine a refrigerator that automatically orders the groceries you need or prints a list of what is running low, as long as you keep the same items in designated spots. It could tell when the milk is getting low by the weight of the carton or simply count the number of eggs in a tray.

What about a fridge that can “smell” when vegetables are starting to go bad? Or keep track of when items have been stored so you don’t accidentally eat leftovers from two weeks ago or more? What if the refrigerator could connect to the Internet and monitor what you food you have? It then could save you from throwing away forgotten items by suggesting a recipe from the available ingredients.

Putting It Together

Two things are needed: the sensors and the algorithms. Many of these sensors already exist. Intersil’s ISL29023 enables video displays to adjust to the surrounding brightness. The ISL28006 can monitor power and help us use it more wisely. That leaves the algorithms. Another word for that is software.

This new age of “there’s an app for that” emphasizes the emergence and popularity of hardware solutions designed with the flexibility to run whatever software you decide to download. These apps use the sensors placed in phones, cars, refrigerators, and elsewhere in new and creative ways.

One example is the app “Sleep Cycle” that I recently downloaded on my cell phone. When placed nearby on my mattress, it uses the gyroscope, possibly in conjunction with other sensors, to determine when I’m in different stages of sleep and least likely to wake up grumpy.

How much further sensors will take us (or that we will accept) is unknown. Would you sign up for a frequent user card from Starbucks that allows the store to automatically tally each time you walk through the door, what time you arrive, what you order, and how long you stay? In return, the company could operate more efficiently, plan for bursts in business, and offer discounts.

Would you pay more for clothes that would inform you when they don’t match? Would you join me in buying an alarm clock that connects to my Outlook calendar and checks the traffic report to keep me from being late to work? Sensors are an enabling and available technology. The uses and inventions are only limited by our imagination and determination to create the next “cool” thing.

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