Perception: Sensors are passive collectors of data.
Reality: Smart sensors are becoming not only highly sophisticated—measuring everything from motion, acceleration, and pressure to light, heat, chemicals, and radioactivity—they’re also becoming assertive. More than merely sensing their surroundings, they are actively affecting them.
Their newfound boldness comes with their increasingly diminished size. As sensors have become smaller, they can be more than a fly on the wall. For example, to treat obese patients, researchers have created a sensor small enough to be swallowed and powerful enough to monitor patients’ fat levels; it automatically releases medication that gives them a sense of fullness and dissuades them from eating. Another group of researchers is working on a sensor-equipped pill the size of a baby aspirin that will monitor medication intake and send a text message to doctors if a patient skips a dose or doesn’t take enough. We already have a name for these active devices: nanobots.
Perception: It’s easy to slap a sensor anywhere.
Reality: One of the biggest potential uses for sensors is to monitor conditions in inhospitable or remote places where it’s expensive or soul crushing for humans to go, such as checking on the structural integrity of oil pipelines in the middle of nowhere. But sensors have always needed a dedicated power source to keep them running, which has limited their use.
That will change, perhaps soon. University of Washington researchers have created a tiny, experimental sensor that grabs energy from the radio waves that flow invisibly around us from sources such as TV and radio broadcasts, cell phones, and Wi-Fi. It then converts that energy into a viable power source. This is a way to make sensors self-sustaining, which opens up vast new possibilities to use them for remote monitoring.
Radio waves are just one source of ambient energy that will eventually enable sensors to generate their own power. Companies have developed prototypes of sensors that can harvest energy from light or vibration (even oscillations as minor as from tapping your fingers on a desk)—technology that will enable sensors one day soon to go where none have gone before.
Perception: Sensors have to be discrete objects, like chips.
Reality: Human skin protects the body and senses its environment. Research points to a similar evolution in sensors.
Scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, are confident that they will one day be able to shrink sensors to 50 microns—half the width of a human hair. This “smart dust” could be integrated into brain cells, allowing paraplegics, for example, to control a robotic arm the same way as their original limb.
Engineers at General Electric and 3D-printing company Optomec have started down this path, creating a compound that can be painted on almost any surface. It hardens into a sensor that can function in the dirtiest, hottest places. GE is using the compound to print sensors on the blades of an industrial gas turbine. The sensors can detect potential problems in the turbines and prevent expensive failures.
Sensors this versatile could help us to expand our awareness. Neural ports in our brains might someday let us swap in ultraviolet, infrared, and night vision as needed or customize new combinations of senses unique to our interests.
Christopher Koch is the editorial director of the SAP Center for Business Insight. Dan Wellers is the Digital Futures global lead and senior analyst at SAP Insights.