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Making sense of sensors

The technology will soon take a more important role, especially when society is moving into a new ubiquitous computing era.

Published on July 9, 2007

You're entering your home, and while you're approaching the door, the light will automatically turn on and the door is opened for you. Don't be surprised if every morning your doctor knows your health status at once as embedded sensors will measure your body's temperature and if something abnormal is found, they will send a report to his office.

Welcome to the world of sensors where small computers will be embedded everywhere.

A sensor is a device which detects or measures a physical property and records, signals or otherwise responds to the information it receives.

They can be embedded in various devices and equipment such as home electrical appliances as well as automotive and medical equipment and electronic devices used for agriculture.

The technology will soon take a more important role, especially when society is moving into a new ubiquitous computing era.

Sensors represent a multi billion-dollar market, with an annual growth rate of 4.8 per cent. According to Global Industry Analysts, worldwide sales of sensors in 2004 were worth US$43 billion (Bt1.51 trillion), climbing to $45 billion and $48 billion in 2005 and 2006 respectively.

Realising their importance and the huge business opportunity for local developers, the National Electronics and Computer Technology Centre (Nectec) intends to encourage local development of sensor technology. Recently it set up a project called the Sensor Technology Programme to work with local sensor technology researchers around the nation and create networking with users to develop sensor technology to serve each industry.

Nectec's assistant director Suthee Phoojaruenchanachai, who is also the Sensor Technology Programme director, said as the development of sensor technology was an integration of knowledge in different fields such as electrochemistry, electronics, computers and biotechnology, it's necessary to create a network to pool resources, on both the demand and the supply side, for further development of the technology to serve each industry's needs.

In the first stage, Nectec has worked with sensor researchers and industries to develop a sensor technology road map as a guideline for development.

Electronic and electrical, automotive, healthcare and agricultural industries have been singled out as having potential for sensor technology development in Thailand. The road map also determines four technology areas that the country should move towards: the development of optical sensors, silicon sensors, micro/nano electro-mechanical systems as well as IC design and fabrication. These areas, Suthee said, are key technology foundations which will help build sensors to fit each purpose.

In addition, the road map also divides the technology development into three phases. The first phase, which will run for two years during 2007 and 2008, will focus on training engineers while pushing the development of sensor technology for use in energy and security applications.

The second phase is to develop sensor technology to serve the medical and healthcare industry as well as for home appliances. This phase will run from 2009 to 2011.

The medical and healthcare industry uses sensor technology to develop new kinds of medical devices, which can, for example, make automatic diagnosis. A rapid test kit for tropical diseases is one area with potential. Implantable chips and biochips to detect health abnormalities and diagnose diseases are also a target for sensor technology development.

Suthee said that in the home appliance area, the development of sensors used in air-conditioning also offered high potential as they could help local home appliance manufacturers add more value to their products.

"Air conditioners in the future will come with what are called comfort sensors which can measure temperature, humidity, air flow, odour and radiation, and make automatic adjustments to control the environment to make rooms more comfortable," he said.

As the world is moving towards an ageing society where the elderly population will grow, Suthee said sensor technology is a key technology that can help the elderly.

Nectec has set the development of sensor technology for an ageing society in the next five years as it realises that many devices will be equipped with sensors and they will be linked together under the same network. Sensor technology will assist the elderly, making their lives more automated. Sensors could be developed as memory assistive devices for Alzhiemer's patients. "We hope sensor technology will help researchers to develop a new medical device for the elderly who suffer from Alzhiemer's disease," he said.

As the disease stems from an abnormality of nerve cells, the idea is to use sensors to stimulate the cells to assist patients' memories.

Suthee said that as the world was moving towards using more sensor technology in daily life, it would be an opportunity for Thailand to jump into this area.

Pongpen Sutharoj

The Nation

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