Sensors, sensors everywhere: MEMS and the “Internet of Things”

Robert MacManus posted an interesting piece on ReadWriteWeb recently (see 2010 Trend: Sensors & Mobile Phones) in their series on the “Internet of Things”–where devices are connected to the Internet to provide us with more data and functionality. Although he doesn’t call it MEMS by name, he makes the point that cell phones are becoming much more than communications devices; cell phones and mobile devices are essentially pocket-sized platforms for sensors. And, yes, many of these sensors are MEMS devices!

MacManus also very astutely comments on this emerging trend of sensors being implanted (almost) everywhere. HP has received recent attention for its aim to create a “Central Nervous System for the Earth” (CeNSE), a massive, worldwide network of MEMS sensors that will pump in data, analyze it and deliver it to the end-user in real-time.  HP mentions infrastructure and earthquake monitoring as two areas that could benefit from this kind of on-demand information gathering and analysis.

Other companies are working on similar projects. Sun Microsystems’ Sun SPOT devices are comparable platforms for sensors, and Sun challenges users to invent applications using them. Speaking to the crowd at MEMS Executive Congress 2008, Roger Meike, director of operations at Sun Labs, touted the SPOT as a great device for experimenting with MEMS. Strap the SPOT to something that moves and you can use the onboard MEMS accelerometer to track its motion.

The open-ended nature of the Sun SPOT project is perhaps its most noteworthy feature. Essentially a hobbyist kit, it allows people (engineers, students, even artists are using them) the freedom to experiment with intelligent sensing. For all we know, the next MEMS killer app could be invented in the bedroom or dorm room of a tinkering hobbyist with nothing but a SPOT (or iPhone, Droid, etc) and a computer!

This leads back to the main point. It seems the need for monitoring technology is greater than ever before. Even minute changes to the global climate threaten to uproot and disrupt the lives of many people on the planet. Natural disasters on the scale of the tragic earthquake in Haiti also remind us of the danger of decaying and inadequate infrastructure.

But there’s hope in the fact that daunting problems and tragedies will spur innovative solutions–whether they come from large companies like HP, independent hobbyists or university students. It’s exhilarating to know that MEMS can play big a role in bringing intelligent sensing to the world. If ventures like CeNSE come to fruition, the next few years could be a very promising time for us all.

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