The Huge Potential of Micro-Sensors

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The Huge Potential of Micro-Sensors

When viewing a photograph on your iPhone, you can turn it sideways and the photograph instantly rotates to match your view.  That neat trick is performed with the help of a sensor based on a microelectromechanical system that measures the direction of the force of gravity.  These so-called MEMS sensors are appearing in more and more places.  Consider just four applications:

  • They measure forces that determine when a car's air bag will deploy. 
  • They direct smart bombs and missiles. 
  • They're used to measure forces in sports, such as the impact a player sustains when being tackled.
  • They can pick up whiffs of chemicals that even a dog's nose would miss.

They are improving all the time, weighing less, getting smaller, and improving their capabilities.  According to the IEEE Sensors Journal,1they are transforming our way of life, and the market for them is huge:  just the automotive safety market for MEMS represents hundreds of millions of dollars a year. 

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A recent article in the International Journal of Materials and Structural Integrity2 explains how MEMS could be installed in buildings and other structures to monitor cracks and stresses and to prevent deadly collapses, such as the bridge collapse that occurred in Minneapolis in 2007. 

Part of the reason that bridge collapsed is that it is too expensive to inspect such structures frequently enough, in a meaningful way.  But MEMS could do it continuously and cheaply, keeping track of moisture, temperature, acidity, and physical forces and sending wireless signals to remote monitoring stations.  These sensors could even be installed as the concrete for the structure is poured.

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Another example of MEMS in action involves a 1.7 millimeter-wide device designed to stabilize an SUV.3  In this application, the MEMS device prevents accidents in which these top-heavy vehicles roll over during sharp turns or during skids on slick roads.  The device is actually a microscopic gyroscope that detects when a vehicle is spinning or beginning to roll and then automatically triggers a compensating correction...

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