Sensing a smarter way to be smart

How miniaturization, wireless communication, low power sensors and extensive energy autonomy are strategic in the development of sustainable global communication infrastructures

One of the main prerequisites for implementing future smart city applications and systems is the existence of an efficient and reliable smart infrastructure connected to billions of intelligent objects. This integrates various basic infrastructures such as electricity grids and transport hubs together with information technologies, distributed smart sensing systems, and communication networks that support the functioning of a modern city and its individual smart constructions – buildings, roads, bridges. The Internet of Things (IoT) is integral to this and within it, a huge number of sensors, actuators and other equipment for data acquisition and processing are interconnected through an omnipresent communication network able to efficiently support transmission technologies and applications. Advanced RF-based communication systems, which already play a significant role in modern networks, are currently evolving to meet the high requirements of modern applications. In addition, there are already many ways to utilize optical components and effects for building precise, efficient, and reliable sensors. Thus, technologies can play a significant role in realizing future smart objects, infrastructures and systems.

Sustainable Development discussed how digital networks and intelligent objects that deploy sensor technologies are making urban environments smarter, with microsensys CEO, Reinhard Jurich, on the occasion of the company’s 30th anniversary.

Recalling the 25th anniversary celebrations before the pandemic

How are ICT and sensor technologies transforming the living standards of today’s citizens, changing priorities in their demands within the digital society?

The latest identification, sensing and communication technologies support the transition to smart, functional, efficient and environmentally friendly living for all citizens. The first building block of any smart city application is reliable, pervasive wireless connectivity. Evolving Low Power Wide Area Network (LPWAN) technologies are well suited to most smart city applications for their cost efficiency and ubiquity. These technologies include LTE Cat M, NBIoT, LoRa, Bluetooth and others, such as wireless beacons and RFID sensors, that all contribute to the fabric of connected cities. In this context sensor technology can be deployed across a number of applications from transport monitoring to sustainable energy and from sensors for security, and motion detection, to quality assurance and maintenance.

How can systems relying on predictive analysis of data, lead to the widespread adoption of applications in intelligent buildings and constructions – and help in the development of this sector?

Technologically speaking, sensor data loggers provide complex monitoring of quality assurance and maintenance, or while transporting foods, plants, pharmaceuticals or medical products both within and between modern smart urban infrastructures. Built into these systems, a battery, non-volatile memory and a password-protected real-time clock ensure the data is recorded reliably. An example of this is the TELID sensor data logger range of solutions. Depending on the product version and the usage profile, these sensor data loggers have a service life of up to five years and due to the contactless RFID interface, the loggers are highly reliable with high data security and robustness.

What about humidity and temperature monitoring in buildings – often seen as energy and cost saving measures? 

There are definitely energy and cost efficiency rewards to be gained from deploying the right sensors to control these conditions. Just as many machines do not tolerate certain temperatures, humid conditions also present difficulties. Too much moisture in the air causes condensation, which can cause some machinery to corrode. Humidity sensors allow users to maintain ideal conditions and take immediate action if there is a change. In homes and business premises they are used to control heating, ventilating, and air conditioning systems. They are also used in manufacturing plants, hospitals, museums, greenhouses and weather stations – any environment that is sensitive to moisture. Temperature sensors, on the other hand, measure heat to detect changes in temperature. In the past, they have been used to control heating and air conditioning but, thanks to the emergence of the Internet of Things, have found many more uses. For example, many machines used in manufacturing and computing are sensitive to temperature and have to be protected from overheating. With smart temperature sensors, businesses can automate heating, ventilation and air conditioning controls to maintain ideal conditions and automatically detect failure or faults as they happen.

How are other sensor technology integrations such as for security, motion/vibration detection and maintenance making a difference?

Motion sensors pick up on physical movement – whether a person, animal or object – in a given area and transform that information into an electric signal. Motion detection has been used in the security industry for years to alert businesses to intruders. They are also found in appliances used every day, like automatic doors, toilet flushes and hand dryers. And they can also be used to automate building controls like heating and lighting depending on whether or not a space is occupied – helping to reduce both energy consumption and running costs. More recently, they have found a further use: helping businesses understand how rooms and spaces are used. By detecting the presence of people or objects in real time, occupancy sensors allow organizations to understand which spaces get the most use, or know which desks or meeting rooms are available at any one time. In a large organization, being able to use space more efficiently can lead huge cost savings, not to mention increased productivity. In other applications, proximity sensors, much like ultrasonic sensors, detect the presence of an object and measure how close it is. One of the most familiar uses is reverse parking sensors in cars. Pressure sensors detect pressure and alert the system administrator of any deviation from the standard pressure range – similar to machine monitoring. This is useful in manufacturing as well as in water and heating systems. Water-quality sensors are used in environmental management and chemical sensors can detect the presence of chemicals in water or air. They are used to track air and water quality in cities, to monitor industrial processes and to detect harmful chemicals, explosives and radioactive materials.

For measurement processes such as 3D vibration analysis when large amounts of data have to be communicated, the use of intelligent wireless sensors is an option. Smart, small, intelligent, innovative and multifunctional are the striking properties of the passive RFID acceleration sensor TELID 281.3D, targeting the path to artificial intelligence in the object world. With a diameter of only 15mm and a maximum thickness of 4mm, this tag is ideally suited for absolutely clear identification of measuring points as well as for a permanently reproducible vibration and acceleration analysis. It measures 3D vibrations, radial or tangential accelerations as well as the speed of rotating shafts. All functions are integrated in this multifunctional passive sensor transponder, including the Fast Fourier Transformation. Thanks to its integrated intelligent micro controller, analysis processes are reduced to just a few seconds, meaning unnecessary data communication volumes are avoided.

What is new to the market in terms of technological developments and innovation?

Developers have been dealing with wireless energy and data transmission issues for years. Innovative solutions are widely used in the medical and pharmaceutical industries markets – such intracranial pressure instruments. Highly interesting and advantageous is the possibility of extreme miniaturization and the fact that the application does not depend on batteries and their durability. Inconspicuous small components offer a clear added value. For this reason, RFID solutions are becoming indispensable in a range of applications. Through contactless communication between built-in RFID reader modules and the transponder, RFID has proven to be an extremely reliable technology for contactless, unambiguous detection and data transmission. The combination of RFID sensors and technological know-how has enormous potential for increasing the performance and optimization of automation solutions. The use of passive RFID sensor transponders in quality assurance processes as well in maintenance and servicing, becomes an objectification of the processes and simplifies the handling. Solutions also includes NFC capable passive sensor transponders which support unique identification, data storage and high-precision instantaneous measurement of physical values. Moreover, systems equipped with multi sensors can support the measurement of different physical values at the same time – through a unique identification number and simultaneous secure object data storage.

Much is being made of wireless beacon technologies and miniaturization in today’s world. How important are these advancements?

One of the key technologies driving the Internet of Things is the miniaturization of sensors, with the corresponding drop in the amount of power they need, and the fact that they can be connected to wireless networks, through either Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. Also, ubiquitous smartphones provide the ability to monitor and control all of these sensors from a growing variety of apps. In fact, miniaturization, new beacons technologies, passive low power sensor transponder and intelligent integration are all making wireless sensors the accelerators and basic elements of the IoT. In this regard, solutions and application functionality are being seen in a number of verticals from logistics, facility and tool management to pharmaceuticals and healthcare and many more. Wearables are also seeing a growing prevalence, such as microsensys’ new iID wearable reader device and wrist scanner for smart mobile wireless data capture.

This reader has been designed in response to the need for mobile data acquisition in areas such as asset management and material handling in administration, industry and logistics. Key features include alerts by vibration, buzzer and LED visualization, a scan trigger by motion, button or host controlled, a hands-free design for easy data transfer to mobile or stationary infrastructure via a Bluetooth Low Energy interface. iID wearable also supports a wide range of different UHF transponder chips with optional sensor functionality.

What is your view going forward in terms of innovation vs sustainability?

Digital transformation is characterized by the development of systems with ever higher data speeds and the provision of cloud-based data storage devices with a maximum of storage capacity. This process is a must-have. However, despite these future-oriented technologies, we should never lose sight of the aspects of the over-all energy consumption and the appropriateness of our real needs. Our goal must be to design the systems sustainably and independently and provide them with an object intelligence that corresponds to our humanistic ideas. A great task lies ahead for those who, after the provision of a global communication infrastructure, deal with our close environment so the many billions of intelligent objects that will surround us and support us in our lives, should also be able to act independently of each other. Miniaturization, wireless communication, low power sensors and extensive energy autonomy are one of the strategic elements to achieve these ambitious goals.

By Victor March

References: DTPI (CC BY); Institute of Communications Engineering, Leipzig