Sensing the future of MEMS - ST Blog

Sensing the Future with MEMS

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We’re fast approaching the 10th anniversary of a sensing milestone. In late 2006, Nintendo launched the Wii in order to rewrite the rules for video gaming. Wii aimed to broaden the market by appealing to a larger audience than the traditional gamers. In addition to being a pioneering gaming system, Wii was a breakthrough application for Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (MEMS) in general, and ST’s MEMS in particular into the consumer market. Since the Wii’s historic launch, MEMS have developed beyond sensing motion to sense various environment parameters such as pressure and sound, And more recently they have allowed us to develop tiny MEMS actuators such as micromirrors. As a result, MEMS have become ubiquitous in a wide range of can’t-live-without consumer applications: Smartphones, mobile computers and tablets, and digital cameras, to name just a few.

Yesterday’s broader audience of gamers who joined the Wii revolution were more interested in physically getting into the game than simply pushing buttons on a game controller. They literally kick-started MEMS growth from low volumes for specialized application to 10’s of billions of devices.

Now, while we may think that MEMS are everywhere, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!

Over the next ten years, according to ST’s Executive Vice President of Analog and MEMS Group Benedetto Vigna, speaking at the semi European MEMS Summit,  ultra-low-power miniaturized connected sensors and micro-actuators will be embedded in all of the smart things on or around us in our homes, offices, cars, and in our cities and factories. These sensors and micro-actuators will be used for fun and for essential tasks. For example, Smart Industry initiatives such as Industry 4.0 are already encouraging the adoption of these tiny marvels to reduce the number of incidents by helping machines and humans work side-by-side to run the supply chain more efficiently. These miniature devices will practically eliminate factory downtime by allowing remote monitoring and encouraging predictive preventative maintenance.

Industry won’t be the only beneficiary of the pervasion of sensors and micro-actuators. Smart Cities will use a wide range of them to improve the quality of life—by monitoring air quality, by quickly notifying emergency services to situations that need a response, by identifying where parking spaces are available and communicating that information to drivers; by monitoring traffic flow and routing vehicles around busy arteries and intersections; and by efficiently directing pick-ups and deliveries to minimize delays and obstructions. Sensors and micro-actuators scattered around cities will see and hear everything and, as a result, make those cities even more friendly, efficient, and livable.

Of course, we will also be part of this growing sensing and micro-actuating fabric. Today, we’ve become wedded to our smartphones. Within ten years, these indispensable tools will likely morph to be distributed in wearable devices with the core of the smartphone—the application processor and Cellular Modem—linked to the phone’s accessories via next-generation ultra-wideband, ultra-low-power radios. Sensors on eyeglasses will help wearers “see,” perhaps by reading signs, identifying people, providing directions, or offering enhanced detail of people, places, and things in the wearer’s line-of-sight. Virtual-reality headsets will allow us to “visit” places without leaving the comfort of our homes. And like the devices monitoring equipment in factories, we may be wearing healthcare patches to monitor our health and encourage us to “maintain” ourselves and take preventative action, when appropriate.

It is an exciting world and the more you look around, the more opportunities you can see for sensors and micro-actuators to make it even more efficient, convenient, and fun.

Hang on. It’s going to be a great ride!