Accelerate - September 2014

Sensing the future

open this image in new window: Accelerate Sep 14 - Sensing Future

Andrew Dawson shares insights into the use of sensors and the opportunities that this presents to different sectors in New Zealand.

Over the past decade, sensors and their different applications have grown so much that they are used in almost every technology and across all industry sectors in the world.

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Sensing the future

But what is a sensor? In short, a sensor is a device that detects and responds to some type of input from the physical environment. The specific input could be light, heat, motion, moisture, pressure, or any one of a great number of other phenomena. The output is generally a signal that is converted to human-readable display at the sensor location or transmitted electronically over a network for reading or further processing.

Dr Andrew Dawson, who is the sensing and robotics network manager at Callaghan Innovation, shared some insights into the way that businesses and researchers are using sensors.

“Sensors are starting to impact the way businesses and governments operate. With the emergence of smart cities the data being collected from sensors is influencing the way both of these groups are interacting with the local population.

Smart cities use sensor data within their borders to establish useful information, such as air and water quality, heat flow between buildings, how their populations travel, how they interact with the public and private enterprises and the times in which these activities take place. This data can provide businesses and government with insights into behavioural patterns, which is a useful tool for predicting trends and planning for future infrastructure.

There are opportunities for businesses to access free sensor information. Mobile phones, for example, that have their Wi-Fi setting enabled can be used as a sensor to track consumer behaviour.

If a retail business tracks Wi-Fi phones in its establishment, it will not be able to access personal data, but it will be able to monitor movement patterns and foot traffic as patrons move through Wi-Fi access points. From these patterns they can, for example, establish that a certain area in the retail space is not being accessed by patrons. Retailers can then address the layout of the space or change their promotions to encourage their patrons to change their shopping behaviours. Businesses who have adopted such methods have observed significant benefits.

One of the technologies that underpin high-value smart sensors, such as MEMS (micro-electromechanical systems) or rapid diagnostic devices, is micro-fabrication, an area in which New Zealand has specialised capability. We realise that micro-fabrication in New Zealand can benefit from a much more collaborative approach if we want to support the growing number of companies to compete globally in these markets. Given our size, we would be unwise not to coordinate our efforts and this is where Callaghan Innovation is adding and will continue to add value. We are setting up platforms to enable sensing technology companies to work together and eliminate waste, to coordinate bulk orders (which will translate into savings for all the participants) and to share access to specialised equipment.

Often companies will spend a large amount of time to find out who in New Zealand has the necessary capabilities, equipment or knowledge to assist them with their commercial challenges. By setting up the sensing network, Callaghan Innovation is trying to increase efficiency, cut out duplication and better coordinate the use of testing platforms, demonstration facilities and equipment, and enable faster knowledge exchange in the sensing technology industry in New Zealand.

If you find the right players they are always willing to cooperate. I’ve spoken to companies who think they are in competition, but after we drilled down into their business models we established that they are in fact complimentary to each other. By engaging with companies across New Zealand and understanding what they do and what their specific challenges are, we understand their needs and can help them find solutions faster.

“In New Zealand, as in many countries across the world, sensors are used in a huge variety of industries, but two sectors are prominent users of sensors to keep their industries globally competitive: the food technology sector and the agriculture sector.

In the food technology sector, sensors play a huge role right through the value chain from the detecting of rot, ripeness and waste to the automated processing of food products.

“Sensors are an essential tool in this sector as they can determine what the human eye can’t and ensure that quality and safety levels are always met and within the acceptable industry standard. Fruit-sorting companies that have to grade their produce according to size, shape and ripeness use this type of technology extensively,” says Andrew Dawson, sensing and robotics network manager at Callaghan Innovation.

In precision agriculture, sensors are being coupled with agricultural drones and robots and used to determine, maintain and monitor a variety of elements. Farmers use sensors to optimise pasture yields and detect crop pests; for detection and neutralisation of cow urine patches; and to herd livestock and analyse soil properties – to name just a few examples.

“As one example, electromagnetic soil moisture sensors are used to sweep a space to produce a map that shows the levels of moisture across the area,” says Dawson. “Coupled with smart irrigators, the sensors will inform the irrigators, which will then distribute water at the correct levels automatically to ensure that the ground moisture levels are always at optimum levels, resulting in significant water savings, and reduced nitrogen leaching into our waterways.”

Updated: 4 September 2015