The rise and rise of the robotic sensor

By 2020, there will be 50 billion sensors observing activity on earth and driving the Industrial Internet. A sensor can be a microphone, a gyroscope, a camera, an electrical transducer, a little bit of fiche-like film, even a knitted fabric (yes, really!). And on top of the fact that they’re generating unbelievable reams of data, sensors are simply improving our lives. Here are seven cool sensor set-ups collecting real-time data to lend a powerful helping hand to the environment, winemakers, the sick, populations in peril—and even your tennis game.


1…Unmanned, up there and upping the agriculture ante

Large-area, high-altitude, multi-spectral image of fields, captured from a UAV.image

Large-area, high-altitude, multi-spectral image of fields, captured from a UAV. At this scale, the image shows the health of the plants below—the darker the green, the healthier the plants. Analysts can zoom in for much more detailed information. Image courtesy of Insitu Pacific.

“One of the most exciting applications we’re seeing for UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] is in precision agriculture, using the ability of hyper- and multi-spectral sensors to provide very close to real-time crop information for farmers,” says Andrew Duggan, MD of Insitu Pacific, a subsidiary of Boeing.

The sensors: Hyper- and multi-spectral cameras “give you the ability to see things you can’t see with the naked eye, by using different parts of the visual light spectrum,” explains Duggan. “You can see whether some parts of the plant have more chlorophyll than others, or you might have an image of a field that’s largely blue, where the odd red patch indicates you have some kind of fungal infection developing.”

Application: Now one-seventh of the size they were just three years ago, these cameras can be mounted on remote-controlled UAVs. “We can visit crops on a regular basis and provide almost immediate turnaround of data to the farmer, which tells them whether there’s water stress, whether they need pesticide in certain areas … where they need to apply fertiliser and so on,” says Duggan.

Potential: The next application for UAV-mounted cameras will be for mining, oil and gas. Says Duggan, “Companies use large aircraft or helicopters carrying Lidar (light detection and ranging), a very common sensor for accurate airborne survey. Lidars are also going to become small enough that we can carry them on UAVs.”

2…The canary in the oil & gas mine

Fish flirt with GE's 'birdcage' sensor image

Fish flirt with GE’s ‘birdcage’ sensor which monitors for leaks in sub-sea oil-and-gas infrastructure.

No fowl or fish has suffered in the deployment of GE’s Naxys acoustic oil-and-gas leak detectors, which monitor sub-sea well heads and equipment. These early-warning systems help save the environment from major leaks or blowouts, prevent serious damage to expensive assets, and safeguard the reputations of mining companies. Due to the shape of the sensor housing, these new GE devices are nicknamed “birdcages”.

The sensor: “It’s a very high-sensitivity microphone: in a 50-metre swimming pool it would detect and be able to count your heartbeats if you were at the other end of the pool,” says Brad Tindall, sales manager of GE Oil & Gas in Australia. For leak detection, the microphone’s range is 500 metres.

The application: “Leaks of different severities sound different. Each birdcage has a number of sensors, and through measuring the time between when the noise is generated and how the different sensors in the birdcage receive that information—how many microseconds between receiving it on the left-hand sensor, the right-hand sensor, or the top and bottom sensors, it’s able to determine where the leak is coming from. That information is communicated wirelessly to the platform. It might be sent back to the company headquarters for processing of the data, or it might trigger a flashing light on their control platform to indicate there’s a problem,” explains Tindall.

The potential: “Rather than doing an inspection every 12 months,” says Tindall, “You’ve got a system online 24/7 that’s providing you with security that you have no leaks… It gives early indication of a sub-sea pump failure, a valve failure or a leak, and that might mean that you have time to plan intervention ahead of the actual failure. You can have planned downtime, to fix the problem, at a time to suit you.”

3…Anyone for sensor-sational tennis?

Sensors on the Babolat Play range of racquets image

Sensors on the Babolat Play range of racquets not only improve your game, but make tennis more social. Image courtesy of Babolat.

At the 2015 Australian Open Tennis Championship, Rafael Nadal was one of the players to record and analyse his game using a sensor-rigged racquet. At the simplest level, Nadal said, “I know to play well I need to play 70 per cent of forehands; 30 per cent of backhands,” and the Babolat Play Aeropro Drive racquet allows him to instantly check this ratio without waiting for played-back video evidence. But weight …

The sensors: … where once a player could get game analysis in practice using a racquet loaded with wires and sensor pads, these sensors make no difference to the weight or performance of a racquet. Nadal’s racquet imperceptibly carries “three axis accelerometers, three axis gyrometers and a vibration sensor,” says Pierre Mace, project director of Babolat Play.

The application: A button activated at the end of play sends the data via Bluetooth to a computer or smartphone. “Babolat Play racquets collect data like shot power, ball impact location, number of strokes, spin, total and effective play time, technique endurance, consistency, energy and rallies,” says Mace.

The potential: Now everyone can have a personal tennis coach, and compare their state of play with friends and a globally ranked community. “On the Babolat Play digital platform, players can share their own profile and view profiles of friends and other players both professional and amateur,” says Mace. Love.

4…What on earth is that puddle?

What on earth is that puddle-The area of floodplain of the Gregory, Leichhardt, Flinders and Norman Rivers in northern Queensland-image

The area of floodplain of the Gregory, Leichhardt, Flinders and Norman Rivers in northern Queensland, showing how often surface water has been observed by Landsat satellites between 1987 and 2014. This area of Queensland is significant for cattle farming. Water Observations from Space shows large areas are impacted during floods which can last for weeks at a time. Image courtesy of Geoscience Australia.

US Landsat satellites have been capturing images of the Australian landmass every 16 days since 1972, and Geoscience Australia has been collecting the revealed data since 1987. One of the observable and ever-changing features that can be isolated from the satellite view is the presence of water. After the devastating Queensland floods of 2011, the Australian Government commissioned the National Flood Risk Information ProjectWater Observations from Space Water (WOfS) aims to ease the “enormous financial and human burden” of severe weather events, says Norman Mueller, earth observation scientist with Geoscience Australia.

The sensors: “… are attached to the satellites … they’re passive optical sensors,” explains Mueller. “They collect sunlight reflected from the earth’s surface. The sunlight interacts with what’s on the ground, which changes the light as it’s reflected.”

The application: Bodies of water can be identified by the way they reflect light, and changes in the shape of areas of water over time can be compared with data gathered at other times—to predict flood events, to show how some areas are more prone to flooding than others, and to show where water comes from during a flood, and where it goes. The breakthrough in this case was in the data. “Every image is slightly different,” says Mueller, “and there are 185,000 scenes in our archive. We’ve created a method to make them all comparable. We’ve pushed it into a super computer, the Geoscience Data Cube, which does the analysis for us. That’s what’s new.” Mueller says the data is currently of particular interest to engineers planning civil works to withstand floods or to channel the flow, and to insurance risk assessors.

The potential: Standardised satellite sensor imagery will allow scientists to assess changes in patterns on the ground, say, in forest growth, or agricultural yield. The water data alone has spawned new thinking in a range of scientific centres. In a recent meeting of 60 water specialists, says Mueller, “almost every one said there was something specific there that they haven’t been able to see before because they’ve never been able to get the data together this way.”

5…Its dynamite!

Postage size sensor-A wireless, battery-free RFID sensor tag for detection of chemicals and oxidisers image

A wireless, battery-free RFID sensor tag for detection of chemicals and oxidisers at very low concentrations. image courtesy GE Global Research.

The Road Runner would not have scored as many explosive wins over Wile E. Coyote had the latter been in possession of an explosives detector. He could have attached GE’s revolutionary new sensor tag to a collar or popped it in a wallet for easy sussing of chemicals that go boom.

The sensor: Engineers at GE Global Research have developed a radio-frequency identification (RFID) tag, coated with chemical-detection film. One aspect of the design mimics the change that occurs in the iridescence of Morpho butterfly wings when they’re exposed to different chemicals. The tag is composed of a flat, coiled antenna attached to a microchip. The antenna gets its power from the tag reader—a mobile-phone-sized, battery-operated device—when it’s in the vicinity. Layered on top of the antenna is the chemical-detection film. When the reader is held up to the tag, it bombards the tag with radio frequencies; the radio frequency spectrum is predictably altered by the presence of hazardous chemicals trapped in the film. This radio-spectrum response is picked up by the antenna and transmitted back to the reader. The tag responds to molecules or particles of explosives or oxidisers that are used to make any kind of bomb.

The application: “Chemical threats can be detected and quantified at very low levels with a single sensor, even improvised explosive devices—crazy devices made out of common grocery or pharmacy stuff— we can detect them,” says Radislav Potyrailo, the scientist leading the detector development.

The potential: This inexpensive device could detect and help limit the movement of explosive devices across borders, in cargo, into important infrastructure facilities and through the post.

6…Slider detector with chips (of gravel)

landslide-Sensors are providing early warning of landslides-image

Sensors are providing early warning of landslides, preventing loss of life and damage to valuable infrastructure. 

In Europe landslides cause significant damage to infrastructure and sometimes to homes, but rarely cause death. In Southeast Asia and other equatorial regions, especially in developing countries, mud and landslides have taken thousands of lives. Neil Dixon, professor of geotechnical engineering at Loughborough University in the UK has been working on detection of soil movements for 20 years, and his work has recently coalesced into a simple, effective detective device, SlopeAlarms.

The sensor: Not so fast! First you drill a bore hole into the ground, then you place a steel tube in the hole and backfill the hole around the tube with gravel. At ground level, you attach an electric transducer to the tube. When earth around the gravel moves, it forces the gravel to move and grind at varying intensities, depending on the ground movement. Vibrations or sound waves travel up the tube and the transducers convert the mechanical movements into electrical signals. “A little box of electronics under a protective cover at the top of the tube processes that signal and works out the amount of acoustic emission being generated,” says Dixon. It compares it against data generated over time, and triggers a warning if there is significant change.

The application: “It’s not a magic wand-type instrument. You don’t sort of scatter fairy dust anywhere and it tells you what’s happening,” says Dixon. “You have to have enough knowledge to know that a particular slope is potentially a problem. We’ve had sensors which have been monitoring continuously for five years, sitting in a field, or in a tunnel in Italy. We’ve got a site in Austria on a railway and a site in Canada where landslides are affecting a road.” Dixon is seeking partners to commercialise SlopeAlarms.

The potential: To save lives. “Most people get killed [by mud or landslides] in the tropics, very heavy rainfall areas,” says Dixon, whose SlopeAlarms is too expensive to be widely deployed in many countries, so he’s working on a simpler, cheaper device. “We’re looking at using a weight to drive the wave guide in, so it’s cheaper to install, with a simpler sensor on the top which sends a wireless message to somebody in a nearby village … somebody who can make a decision.”

7…A good yarn

sensor in this compression-measuring sock is all in the knitting, which includes stainless steel threads-image www.spy-drones

The sensor in this compression-measuring sock is all in the knitting, which includes stainless steel threads. Image courtesy of Footfalls And Heartbeats.


New Zealand company Footfalls and Heartbeats has just signed a license for the first commercial use of its unique knitted fabric, which measures the compressive and tensile forces applied to it.

The sensor: “It’s a manipulation of the knitted structure of the fabric, using an electrically conductive yarn,” says Simon McMaster, who had the idea 12 years ago when baking muffins at 4am for a café he was running while studying chemistry and technology. Data from the conductive yarn is transferred via a credit-card-sized processor connected to the sock near the patient’s leg, which relays pressure readings to a computer.

The application: Compressive bandages for wound care. “For sufferers of venous leg ulcers, the standard treatment is application of compression using elastic bandages,” says Brent Ogilvie, MD of Footfalls and Heartbeats. “A physician or nurse doesn’t know the level of compression as they’re applying the bandage. Too little pressure just warms the leg, too much pressure creates a tourniquet—and there’s a therapeutic zone in the middle. We’ve developed a toeless sock that will measure the compression as the bandage is being applied.”

The potential: McMaster now works for Footfalls and Heartbeats from the University of Nottingham where he’s developed a different fabric that measures the onset of diabetic foot ulcers, blending the technology from the compression sock with optical fibres. Other fabrics might also become sensors for heart rate or blood pressure.

Feature image courtesy of Geoscience Australia. Water Observations from Space (WOfS) shows the summary, since 1987, of how often water has been observed across Australia by Landsat satellites. This image, nicknamed “Here be dragons”, has been recognised as a work of art in its own right. 


Henry Sapiecha

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