A feast of the sensors

Nearly everything in our world is becoming sensor-laden. How can you benefit from the pervasiveness?

Bosch autonomous car technology

A vehicle using sensors and cameras to determine distances to cars and other objects around it.

Credit: Bosch

Now that the term "IoT" has become widely accepted, it's interesting to ask people about what they think it means. Responses range from wearables to factory automation tools to drones. In actuality, all are valid if you take "Internet of Things" literally.

What doesn't come up as frequently is the range of sensors -- or more specifically, sensing types -- that are becoming available within, and further enabling, the IoT. Sensors mated with microprocessors and wired or wireless connectivity (thus technically qualifying them as IoT components) are evolving at an amazing rate, with new types and form factors emerging almost daily. Ranging from sensors in the home to satellites orbiting at low altitudes, the plethora of these is fascinating, ever-increasing, and will doubtless change our world.

Fire! Fire! Down there!

A cool startup with roots in the NASA community is FireSat, which is working on sending a large constellation of satellite-based infrared sensors into low earth orbit (LEO). The startup's immediate goal is to give forestry and regional fire departments the ability to know when fires erupt almost anywhere on the globe. The technology means a big reduction in detection time as compared with traditional terrestrial sources.

With all of that data coming down, there are doubtless many other uses for such timely and widely captured infrared data, possibly in environmental monitoring, smart cities and, yes, defense. FireSat is only possible now thanks to the evolution of ultra-compact and cost-effective sensors and microprocessors.

Drones -- they’re not just for taking videos anymore

Some of the leading makers of small UAVs, aka drones, are beginning to offer built-in sensors of varying types, or, if not sensors, the mounting points and power connections for them. This will have an amazing impact on industries where access is either remote or dangerous (in the case of high-voltage power line inspections, both).

In agriculture, you can imagine swarms of inexpensive drones sweeping over farm fields collecting data on various attributes of the surrounding air, soil and the plants themselves. As farms become ever bigger, and the need for improved crop yields raises the pressure on growers to increase efficiency, such sensing systems will likely move into the mainstream of that industry and many others. 

Turning cameras into counters

Engineers who have worked in high-volume manufacturing are doubtless familiar with the incredible camera systems that can capture images at extreme frame rates and then analyze the pictures to, for example, count the number of objects coming down a conveyor belt at 30 mph.

Taking that outside of the factory and onto the streets are a number of companies, many raw startups, that are leveraging the plethora of cameras around us as object counters. These include determining how many containers are stacked at a seaport, how many cars are in the parking lot of a big-box store, how many people are walking down a street in New York City -- it's almost endless.

Add to these the concept of "image crowdsourcing" -- whereby individuals contribute photos or video taken with their mobile devices -- and then process those files into numerical data, and it gets even more pervasive. Only a short time ago, this capability was strictly the domain of large companies and certain government agencies. Now it is available through, and enabled by, the huge number of inexpensive sensors, or cameras, spread throughout the environments in which we live and operate.

The silence of sound

The one sensor type that almost never gets mentioned in discussions of the IoT is audio. Strange, because it's such an all-encompassing part of, well, everything.

That absence of recognition as a potentially useful part of the IoT landscape is starting to be replaced by not only acknowledgement of sound's importance, but in many cases, pure awe. Sure, we've had voice recognition in our lives for years (and I've fallen completely in love with my Amazon Echo), but using audio as a sensing type takes it to a whole new level.

Check out ShotSpotter. Using microphones placed throughout cities, its network can "hear" the report generated by a gunshot and report its location to authorities. The system is sophisticated enough to distinguish between car backfires, trash trucks dropping dumpsters and actual gunfire.

Another company, HowLoud, whose founders come out of CalTech, is mapping the acoustic signatures of whole cities. Its initial application deals with an issue that has vexed people everywhere: You're looking for a new place to live, but unless you physically go to each and every location listed, how do you know what it sounds like? Now you can get an approximation of the noise levels at addresses you're considering.

The fifth element . . . and the sixth . . . and the seventh

With so many technological breakthroughs occurring all the time, it's difficult to predict which sensor types will become dominant in terms of affecting our business and personal lives. If you go a long way back, mankind pretty much dealt with The Big Four: Earth, Air, Water, Fire. It turns out that most sensor development does in fact relate to one of those, even if distantly.

But there are many more, such as using radio wave emanations to count mobile devices as a proxy for human activity. Or measuring reflected ultraviolet light to discern between types of vegetation (well, I suppose that could very loosely relate to "Fire").

If you want to see sensors enabling something wonderful, take a look at this.

What about the benefits to organizations?

Of course, industries have employed sensors in all sorts of applications for years. As they become more accurate, smaller and less costly, many will move from high-cost, specialized uses toward more widespread implementation.

From the standpoint of data analytics, the trove of information that can be captured, gleaned and acted upon thanks to all of these new sensor feeds will get ever larger. Doubtless we'll see wholly unexpected uses for these, and if history is any guide, those who see the trends and leverage them will be at the forefront of where business goes next.

That's my sense, at least . . .

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