Although they are only as
small as a pin head, they are changing everyday life in many fields: tiny Bosch
micromechanical sensors. In fitness wristbands, they measure physical activity
and help people achieve better health and well-being. In cars, sensors identify
dangerous situations and instantly alert the control electronics to keep the
vehicle on the road. Because sensors detect the earth’s gravity, smartphones
can change their screen orientation to suit users’ needs. Bosch is the world’s
leading manufacturer of MEMS sensors (micro-electromechanical systems). Since
the start of production in 1995, the company has manufactured more than six
billion of them. “The key challenge in the ongoing development of our MEMS
sensors is their energy consumption. For example, more intelligence in sensors
makes it possible for us to reduce energy consumption,” says Dr. Franz Lärmer,
a Bosch sensor expert. It is hard to put a number on the many potential
applications of sensors. They are a key technology for the internet of things
Three approaches for lower energy consumption
Users of mobile devices such
as smart watches, augmented-reality glasses, or wearables often wish for longer
battery runtimes, smaller designs, more affordable products, and more
functions. Until now, the capacity of the batteries in such devices has often
not been enough to keep the sensors and their analysis chips constantly
supplied with power. Devices have to be recharged more frequently if the
sensor-supported functions are constantly in use. Moreover, better battery
performance also opens the door to a wider range of intelligent applications.
With the aim of reducing sensors’ energy consumption, Lärmer and his team in
Renningen have joined forces with Bosch researchers in Palo Alto, California,
to pursue three different approaches.
The first approach: energy can
be harvested from changes in ambient pressure, vibration, or temperature. As
part of the publicly funded joint project 9D-Sense, Bosch is working with
partners to research this kind of energy harvesting. Tiny rechargeable
batteries can store even the most minuscule amounts of energy gathered in this
way to provide sensors with power over a long period of time, maintenance-free.
The second approach: sensors can be programmed to gather and transmit their
data only when absolutely necessary. If a smartphone is lying still on a table,
for example, its sensors do not need to be active. The third approach: at its
research centre in Palo Alto, Bosch has developed the world’s smallest and most
energy-efficient sensor unit. The contents of the BMI160’s tiny housing, which
measures 2.5 x 3.0 x 0.8 millimeters, include an accelerometer and a yaw-rate
sensor (gyroscope). In a smartphone, the sensor unit measures things such as
position. It can also be found in tablet computers and smart watches. In full
operational mode, the BMI160’s typical power consumption amounts to a mere 950
microamperes, which is less than half the market standard, as well as a world
record. This and other Bosch sensors can be found in three-quarters of all
smartphones in the world today.
Every object capable of gathering information
“In the future, nearly all
everyday objects are likely to be equipped with sensors. This is a
revolutionary development that will allow almost every object to gather
information about itself and its environment. As a result, the potential
applications of these objects will increase tremendously,” Lärmer says. “But
other things are also playing an increasingly important role, such as the combination
of several sensors and the integration of software intelligence.” One example
comes from the world of physical fitness. By measuring atmospheric pressure,
one sensor can determine which floor of a building the wearer is located on,
while another sensor registers every movement the wearer makes. Together with
the data from a tiny heart-rate sensor, which is attached to the user’s skin,
the sensor automatically transmits a fitness profile containing information
about things such as changes in heart frequency while climbing stairs. If
desired, a smartphone app can transmit the profile to a trainer. Applications
related to early screening and diagnosis are also conceivable. “Changes in how
people move can be an early sign of conditions such as dementia or postural
defects. They could be measured in a similar way using MEMS sensors. This would
allow us to diagnose and treat illnesses at the earliest possible stage,”
Lärmer says. “There is no end in sight to the wide range of possible
applications for connected sensors. Our research examines these possibilities.”
The latest technical equipment for sensitive sensors
At its new research center in
Renningen near Stuttgart, Bosch is working on the big future of these tiny
components. It wants to make them even smaller and more energy efficient, thus
paving the way for new applications. The best possible conditions are needed to
manufacture MEMS, and the same goes for research into new MEMS generations.
Even the tiniest grains of dust can cause major problems in the development and
production of MEMS structures. At its new research campus, therefore, Bosch has
constructed a suite of clean rooms to the latest technical specifications. All
air in the building is subject to thorough filtering, resulting in no more than
370 particles per cubic meter. By comparison, air in a typical urban
environment contains some 35 million particles per cubic meter.
Tiny structures, extremely sensitive
structures are etched into silicon during MEMS production. On the sensor, the
teeth of tiny comb-like silicon structures intermesh. Less than one-quarter the
thickness of a human hair, these comb-like structures are pushed up against
each other during movement. The distance between the teeth changes, leading to
a change in the electric current in the comb-like structures. This current can
be measured and calculated as an electric signal that the sensor then
transmits. MEMS sensors are extremely sensitive thanks to this technology,
Lärmer explains. “In a laboratory, you can use them relatively easily to
measure the earth’s rotation.” What is more, the fine silicon structures are
already capable of measuring movements of just one femtometer. This is the
unimaginably small distance of 0.000000000000001 meters (10-15 meters), and
thus the same magnitude as the diameter of atomic nuclei.
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