Sensors that can monitor their environment or gather contextual data are being used to create so-called smart devices, from humble garbage bins to lifesaving drones. There are applications in agriculture, manufacturing, home automation, medical technology, supply-chain management and security. Be they simple or state-of-the-art, there are many ways sensors are bringing the IoT to life.
With this in mind, here are some of the surprising ways sensors are already being used in developing IoT solutions and where they’re likely to pop up in the near future.
With self-driving cars on the horizon, many of us look forward to a future in which getting from A to B is simpler and safer, the removal of human error reduces accidents and deaths, driver’s licences are unnecessary and road rage is a distant memory.
Right now, parking assistance, lane-change warnings, collision detection and other advanced vehicle features are great examples of sensor technology driving safer journeys, even before fully autonomous cars have hit our roads.
These systems include ultrasonic sensing, which transmits bursts of sound waves and measures the time taken for the sound to bounce back from nearby objects. Radar sensors, on the other hand, use electromagnetic waves to check range and velocity, with long-range radar used in automatic emergency brakes and adaptive cruise control.
Light detection and ranging (known as LIDAR) uses laser measurements to create an exact 3D model of the car’s surroundings. This 3D positional data enables even non-autonomous vehicles to rapidly process optimal times to apply emergency breaks and safety functions in scenarios where pure-radar and ultra-sonic sensors are less reliable.
Visual sensors are, however, where things really rev up for road users. Beyond reversing and blind-spot cameras, cars need highly sensitive image sensors that can operate in low light and poor weather, as well as the software and real-time processing to analyse these images immediately and, in the case of fully autonomous vehicles, make safe decisions to protect both their drivers and bystanders from harm.
Our major roads and freeways are getting smarter too, as roadside infrastructure is gradually upgraded to incorporate multifunctional sensors that gather more data and provide greater connectivity. A recent VicRoads project upgraded electronic signage so it not only warns drivers of delays ahead but also directs and diverts traffic quickly in response to jams and hazards. The system also automatically updates a Twitter feed for real time alerts to motorists – promoting road safety before the driver even enters their vehicle.
By air and sea
Aircraft are perhaps the most highly monitored and connected vessels of all – and not just for the benefit of wi-fi-loving passengers on Boeing 787 Dreamliners. Aircraft engines alone, for example those made by Rolls-Royce, are monitored for fuel efficiency and predictive maintenance as well as flight tracking. Meanwhile, the airports they visit use IoT solutions to assist with all manner of logistics. At Athens International Airport, environmental sensors help preserve the facility’s carbon-neutral status by monitoring air pollution.
Engineering heavyweight Rolls-Royce is also making waves with sensors at sea. Through its advanced autonomous waterborne applications initiative, the company aims to have autonomous vessels operating by 2020, so that any decisions that would usually require a ship’s captain will be centrally managed by someone seated in an on-shore command centre.
For those who do find themselves out at sea, the humble life jacket has also had some attention from technologists. Korea Telecom, for example, is working on a smart life jacket that has location, identity and heart-rate sensors built-in, not just a light and a whistle!
In Australia, drone technology with visual sensing is assisting the nation’s iconic
surf lifesavers to keep swimmers safe. Telstra engineers have helped connect
drones with sophisticated cameras and advanced video processing via the Telstra
Mobile Network. Image processing and pattern recognition
then enables the drones to detect rips in the surf and discern the difference
between sharks and dolphins.
Health and wellbeing
Back on dry land, there are many examples of sensors, particularly wearable ones, enhancing our individual health and wellbeing. Consider the various pedometers, fitness trackers and general smartphone apps that already help us perspire – or at least aspire to be more active.
Sports equipment has entered the arena as well. Cycling accessories company Livall has launched a series of smart, connected helmets for cyclists and skiers, with safety features such as automatic warning lights, LED turning signals and an inbuilt SOS function which allows for immediate contact to emergency services and family members in case of an accident. The University of Texas has developed a sensor-laden Riddell football helmet to monitor players’ neurological health on the field.
Research varies, but the IDC Worldwide Semiannual Internet of Things Spending Guide predicts the global IoT market will be worth $US400 billion ($A507 billion) by 2020. This is presumably inclusive of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), the Internet of Moving Things (IMoT), the Internet of Devices (IoD) – the list goes on. “The Internet of Cows” is an example coined by the UK National Trust and BT (formerly British Telecom) which have developed a project to track cattle and reduce theft.
Agriculture is a prime candidate for IoT, particularly in the dairy sector. Cross-border supply-chain service company Peloris Global Sourcing, based in Woolgoolga on the NSW mid-north coast, uses sensors in milk to ensure and verify the quality of product it exports to China. Temperature data is captured at regular intervals throughout the journey for customs authorities to check.
Whenever there’s excitement around a new technology, there’s usually one or two more fanciful, eyebrow-raising concepts created to grab headlines. CES 2017, the annual global consumer technology tradeshow held in Las Vegas, included some surprising IoT examples: sleep-monitoring beds, app-controlled window blinds and connected toaster ovens. Cosmetics giant L’Oréal even created a vibrating hairbrush with a microphone that listens for the sound of breaking strands.
While some of us don’t need a smart toaster or connected brush, chances are there’s already a considerable bunch of sensors in your pocket right now.
Besides a microphone and a camera or two, most smartphones also include an accelerometer, gyroscope, digital compass, fingerprint reader, light sensor for adjusting screen brightness and proximity sensor, which allows the screen to switch off when you’re holding the phone to your ear.
The sensor technology packed into a single smartphone is already ringing with the countless possibilities of IoT – here, now and within our grasp.