Tony Ingham of Sensor Technology reflects on the ­incremental transition from simple to highly sophisticated machines and systems with the ­increasing addition of ­sensors and ICs and how this is continuing to evolve

My first driving lesson started with Dad lifting the bonnet of our 1957 Morris Minor Estate and explaining how it all worked. It wasn’t difficult: there was one big lump of metal called an engine and another one called a gearbox (three-speed, no synchromesh).

Driving was a bit of a challenge though: crashing through the gears and brakes with the stopping power of a blancmange, steering like a galleon, a single five inch windscreen wiper (that cut out when it got wet). All this and inertia reel seat belts were still ten years into the future.

But cars aren’t like that now!  They almost drive themselves; monitoring road, weather and traffic conditions and adapting automatically as they go.

All of this is done through the use of sensors. Lift the bonnet now and you see any number of black boxes full of electronics, and enormous wiring looms connecting them to sensors spread all over the vehicle.

Today every consumer device has a suite of on-board sensors discretely working away; the machinery of manufacturing, conveyors, mixers, ovens, robots, are all to some greater or lesser degree ‘intelligent’.

Aircraft and ships bristle with safety features, navigational aids and communications equipment. Stage sets, TV studios and exhibition spaces are highly automated. Medical equipment and exercise machines monitor their users’ vital signs.

If we look at emerging technologies we see sensors at their very heart. Clean fuel technologies such as engine management systems, flue gas analysers and afterburners for incinerators and boilers, all rely on real time sensing.

 The rate of development of new sensors is set to explode. Micro machining, the adoption of ceramics and of grown-crystal structures will mean sensing heads can become much smaller, more robust and almost infinitely reliable

Wind turbines have control systems with sensors monitoring wind speed and directions, blade tip speed, vibration, power output, conversion efficiency, gearbox temperature, etc, etc. Hydroelectric schemes are, if ­anything, even more complicated.

Considering all this, it is clear to see that the deployment of sensors is going to spiral over the next several decades. New areas of use are appearing all the time, existing sensor users are installing ever more, and areas that previously did not use sensors at all are now adopting them for automation, monitoring or to provide extra functions.

The rate of development of new ­sensors is set to explode. Micro machining, the adoption of ceramics and of grown-crystal structures will mean sensing heads can become much smaller, more robust and almost infinitely reliable. This is coupled with the continuing expansion of signal processing capacity as semiconductor technology develops yet further. (Moore’s Law – processing power doubles every 18 – 24 months – shows no sign of slowing down).

We can safely predict that in ten years time sensors will be so much more developed that it will be like the current generation of young whipper-snapper automotive engineers looking back at Dad’s Morris Minor.

Some of tomorrow’s sensors will be completely new technologies, while others will be improvements on existing ones. A third category is the radical development of an existing technology, an example of which is Sensor Technology’s creation of a load sensor from a torque sensor.

Over the years we have built up a good steady business with our TorqSense product range. This does away with all the fiddly slip rings normally needed to make an electrical connection to a rotating shaft, replacing them with a radio ­frequency (RF) transmission.

Then one day a helicopter pilot told me that when lifting a heavy underslung cargo net he had no idea of the actual weight or load, so was literally flying by the seat of his pants. This got me thinking; could we fit a load cell to the cargo hook and read it using a wireless RF solution?

Naturally, it wasn’t as easy as that. We had to kick the idea around with our research department, then free up some time and manpower for a development project.

But we succeeded in the end and thus made a contribution to aviation safety. Of course by logging the load cell’s output data over time and running it through a little computer programme, we are able to calculate load/time/distance values, which the helicopter operators can use for accurately working out operating costs, maintenance schedules, etc.

This development is typical of many more that can be expected in the world of sensing technologies over the coming years. We can predict some developments quite confidently, but the real excitement comes with the completely new ideas and those off-the-wall new uses for existing technologies. Whatever happens, we know it will be thrilling and push the technology envelope to new heights.

Sensor Technology