Human operators of systems monitor their environment the whole time, often in ways that we’re not aware of. The feeling of the breeze on our face, movements in our peripheral vision, small changes of pressure in our ears and in the soles of our feet. In order to match this awareness, smart systems need a well-designed and configured array of sensors, providing them with all the data that they need not only to directly perform their function, but also to give them situational awareness.

Smart buildings not only need data to perform their function directly, but also require background information about their environment to guarantee safe operation in all circumstances including exceptional events like earthquakes. Consumer applications like pedometers, drones and smartphones have a growing need for sensor solutions of their own, as their functions multiply and they become more autonomous.

In response, I can see three major trends emerging in sensor development. First is for multiple sensors to be integrated together onto a common platform with a single interface to simplify system design. Second is the enhancement of sensors with algorithms to provide interpretation of the data collected. Finally, the evolution of new classes of devices designed for ultra-low power battery systems like drones.

Multi-purpose sensors
Truly multi-purpose environmental sensors make it very easy for the designer to deliver a wide range of measurement functions from just one small sensor. This will save development time by providing numerous options that can be tailored to the user’s needs. Whether it’s a question of simply making sure the office environment is kept at the optimum working temperature or ensuring that say a museum has the correct humidity and lighting to protect the exhibits, these sensors offer easy to interpret data that can then be analysed, stored on the cloud and used to set parameters and make real-time adjustment.

There are probably seven core parameters that any environmental sensor for building and industrial automation systems should be able to monitor: temperature, humidity, light, UVI, barometric pressure, noise and acceleration. Additional requirements include integral memory, allowing data to be retained on a chip for a period of time. Sensors need to be cloud compatible with no need for additional hardware. Bespoke threshold values can be set to provide alerts that notify the user of any abnormal sensor readings. This new breed of sensors also requires flexibility in terms of interfacing, allowing connection not only to the building automation infrastructure but also to mobile devices etc. Power consumption is another key issue. Potential applications include monitoring and controlling both industrial and office environments to improve the work space. It is also suitable for home and outdoor applications.

Sensors like the Omron 2JCIE Sensor provides the capability to monitor all of these, and provides data via popular wireless and wired data interfaces like USB and Bluetooth. Despite its compact size, 2JCIE features its own embedded memory for data logging to keep track of the surroundings.

Sensor technology is evolving rapidly in the face of an explosion of new opportunities. Smart buildings and drones are very much emerging, whilst fitness trackers, smart phones and other applications continue to evolve new functions which usually require new sensors. Sensor manufacturers are rising to the challenge by continually developing the solutions they offer, and packaging them to make the life of the system designer easier.

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