Going Where No Sensor Has Gone Before
From the ice rink to the fire department, the farmer's field and the assembly line, sensors are in more places than you think -- silently laying the foundation for big changes in how we work and play. Every time you send a tweet, you feed the big data machine. Every Facebook "like," every page you browse, it all leaves a digital trail of your activities. When chips are everywhere, they'll track your moves, measure your temperature and scoop up that digital trail to gleam useful information to make your live more productive.
People embrace sensors to check diet and exercise, but business use will soon dwarf consumer use. The so-called "Internet of things" trend is exploding, and devices beyond your phone will connect to one another, changing the way we work and live. To get a better feel, here are surprising places sensors are popping up.
In Your Body
Want to fight fires better? Then swallow a pill... at least, that's what firefighters in Australia are doing. Firefighters are taking pills with micro-sized thermometer and wireless transmitter to check their vital signs in a blaze. These pill-sensors are helping officials to develop programs to help firefighters cope with stress and fatigue.
"If we see their core body temperature increasing then we know to remove them from the fire and put them into the rehabilitation area," said fire official Peter Langridge, to Time.
The program comes months after the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, announced plans to create nanosensors to check the health of soldiers in the battlefield, keeping doctors informed of any health problems in real-time. Working in high-temperature or hostile environments can add different levels of stress, so these internal sensor-systems can show when people should be sent in or pulled out, and how they're dealing with a fire or a war zone.
The pills are made of plastic, unlike ordinary capsules, so they pass through the body in a couple of days. So far, only highly specialized industries, like the military, use consumable sensors, but with research and refinement, you will soon take a pill to measure your bodily activities. Instead of opening up to say "ah," for example, your doctor may ask you to swallow a pill to check your stress levels. These sensors are in the early stages, but the ripple effects will change everyday life.
On Your Head
Companies are also using sensors in Little Leagues and professional sports to monitor for concussions. Chips are used to measure the impact in head injuries and check for serious consequences. Similarly, these sensors are helping soldiers fight traumatic brain injuries. The U.S. government, for example, awarded BAE Supply nearly $17 million for a system, called Headborne Energy Analysis and Diagnostic Systems, or HEADS, to measure lifesaving data. The sensor -- about the size of a credit card -- is placed on combat helmets to measure impact duration, blast pressures, ambient temperature, angular and linear accelerations, as well as the exact times of single or multiple blast events.
Brain injuries are a signature injury for soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. "The Army has an urgent demand for technologies that help identify individuals who may be in need of medical assistance for potential head and brain injuries," said Don Dutton, vice president of Protection Systems at BAE Systems, adding that HEADS collects results to improve protective equipment. But for the less hazardous, sensors are already among sports enthusiasts, helping to protect kids from the nearly four million concussions each year. For example, in Illinois, high school hockey coach Tim Johannes designed the "Shockwave," a clear sensor that attaches to the back of a player's helmet. It measures the force of an impact, and turns red for hard hits. Before using it, the sensor is calibrated to each player, after testing for balance and motor skill.
Shockbox shows a range of colors to gauge the impact of a hit, and then transmits it to the smartphones of concerned parents and coaches via Bluetooth. Reebok plans to release a similar product, dubbed the "CheckLight," later this year. But rather than attaching to a helmet, the skull-cap fits directly around the head. These examples join other products to help measure your health, helping to track heart and lung diseases, or biometrics like blood sugar levels. Similarly, motion sensors can help diagnose a spectrum disorders.
In Your Home
As utilities turn to smart meters, they'll generate more accurate bills and send alerts in case of disruptions. In California, for instance, Pacific Gas & Electronic replaces 1,200 old-fashioned meters with digital meters each day, while in the U.K., AlertMe, a smart meter contractor, covers 10,000 British Gas customers.
Beyond efficiency and convenience, smart homes can compromise your privacy. These sensors measure a cache of data about the home, and store it on servers worldwide. Data such as the contents of your refrigerator, the number of people in your home, the identities of your family members seems innocent enough, but in the wrong hands, it can be dangerous.
In the Ground
Farmers are reaping the benefits of sensors too. The agriculture industry, often at the mercy of nature, is also embracing social media to communicate with one another and with consumers and is now developing high-tech ways to increase crop yields. And, sensors are on the forefront, generating positive buzz. Precision agriculture, which uses scanners, GPS and sensors to manage plants, can read the health of plants and apply the right amount of fertilizer to ensure big crops.
Meanwhile, scientists are developing tiny ping-pong-like robots, called "droplets," which work in swarms to maximize farming efficiency. Robots check the environment to figure out the health of plants, forecast yields based on color and height and show when crops are ideal for harvesting.
"We have to produce double as we go forward to meet the growing world population," said Dr. Raj Khosla, professor of precision agriculture at Colorado State University at a summit this month on the subject. "Farmers are seeing more value to their crops and want to see how they can increase the return."
At Your Job
Some companies turned to sensors after the recent recession. Increased efficiency is a big benefit, but it often comes at the cost of human workers. For example, Cleveland auto supplier Stripmatic uses sensors instead of workers to detect jams inside its machinery. Instead of four "smashups" a month, sensors cut it to just two a year, according to the Washington Post.
Sensors, unlike workers on the production floor, can detect a jam instantaneously. And systems that integrate sensors can stop operations on the spot to fix the problem. A worker, by comparison, must physically halt the line, get details from observing and add data into the computer -- costing precious time and money. As a result, Stripmatic does 20 percent more business with a third fewer employees.
The Future of Sensors
As the costs of sensors drop, they'll alter how we grow our food, manufacture our products and check our health and homes. Sensors are getting smaller, and despite being hidden, they're attracting a lot of attention. But the streams of information they generate will pour into the giant ocean of "big data," laying a foundation for great changes in how we live, work and play. Sensors will pass results to algorithms to interpret and find deeper meaning.
In hockey, for example, concussion helmets that help one player check for hits can also slow the impact of hits at different angles. That, in turn, can tell league officials how to change the rules to better protect players. Similarly, other factory systems can combine sensors to find optimal ways to increase production -- all as a result of a tiny sensor embedded in your helmet, your hat or in the tiny crevice of a machine. ♦