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Outlook 2016: A sense of purpose for the third wave of semiconductors

‘Big data’ and the Internet of Things: the crucial role of a new generation of sensor solutions.

The amazing transformation in people’s lives over the past 15 years, resulting from the growth of the internet, is being mirrored by a transformation in the operation of machines.

As machines or devices everywhere – ‘things’ is the fashionable term – become connected and smart, they also need to sense the world around them. This demand for sensors, driven by the Internet of Things (IoT), is feeding a third wave of growth in the semiconductor industry, after the personal computer in 1990s and the mobile phone in the 2000s. At the leading edge of this wave is sensor solutions technology.

Billions of new data points

The extraordinary value of the IoT springs from its universality and ubiquity: since the internet provides a universal and open protocol, it enables billions of devices of all types and from any manufacturer to connect and share data.

And when this data is about real-world phenomena, systems and products become hugely more valuable. In the case of smart lighting, devices generate and use micro-data: a light which knows how many people are in its proximity and how much daylight is entering the space around it, can adjust its light output intelligently, and even control heating, ventilation and access controls. A smart light saves energy and improves people’s comfort and security.

For a smart city, macro-data provide the value, drawn not from one device but from thousands. A city which can draw on real-time measurements of airborne particulates taken by millions of smartphones, smart cars and other devices can produce far more accurate, granular and timely air-quality ratings than are possible today. This opens up the possibility of more intelligent and more dynamic traffic and emissions controls and public health monitoring, making cities healthier and safer places in which to live.

Many of the uses for the petabytes of data that the world will derive from the IoT are impossible to imagine today. But when stored, mined and analysed, these data will no doubt yield astonishing insights about the world we live in and the machines we use.

The realisation of this vision depends absolutely on a proliferation of sensors. In the IoT, things need to know about the world around them, including familiar parameters such as temperature, humidity, pressure and acceleration. But hundreds of new phenomena will also be measured by the sensors in things: environmental parameters such as ambient light, or concentrations of various pollutants in the air; and personal characteristics such as chemicals in sweat, the heart rate, and the oxygenation of the blood.

We are already seeing a proliferation in the number and types of sensors in existing devices, such as smartphones. Expect to see miniature gas sensors in phones in the coming years for measuring the quality of the air in the vicinity of the device. With every passing year, cars are loaded with more and more sensors and new types to be introduced soon will enable cars to be aware, for instance, of the proximity and the speed and direction of travel of other vehicles on the road.

Sensors are also finding their way into devices that never previously contained them – and, in fact, in to devices that were never even electronic before. With the addition of the AS7000 smart optical sensor module from ams, for instance, a watch can become an always-on personal health monitor, measuring and logging the wearer’s heart rate and blood oxygen levels continually. And in the migration of things to the IoT, the simple light bulb becomes a smart light through the addition of an optical sensor module and infra-red LED, able to sense the proximity of people and the brightness and colour of daylight.

An unknown factor is the number of completely new device types that will be invented to take advantage of the ability of connected things to sense their environment. One example: the medical profession has high hopes of new types of wireless implantable bio-sensors or sensor ‘tattoos’, connected to the physician’s patient information server via a smartphone app, and providing 24/7 remote monitoring of patients’ state of health.

How sensor technology adapts to the IoT

The demand for sensors everywhere, in things of every type, calls for innovations in the design and production of analogue semiconductors. Space and power will, in many cases, be in short supply. And in devices such as lights, watches and home appliances, sensing is a peripheral function, and not part of the core application implemented by the OEM. This means the sensor will need to:

  • draw very little current
  • occupy a tiny board footprint
  • integrate easily into the end product’s application

ams has recognised this change in the scale and nature of the demand for analogue semiconductor technology. Its design and fabrication technologies are enabling innovative new sensor solutions that fit OEMs’ space and power constraints and that, in many cases, provide an application-ready digital output.

It is thanks to a long history of investment in analogue technology that ams can provide high-performance sensors that meet the needs of IoT devices. In fact, ams is the biggest analogue semiconductor company to focus wholly or mainly on sensors. Backed by process technology and a wealth of expertise in sensor design, ams has a portfolio of sensor products and technologies to rival that of any semiconductor company.

New solutions for new applications

More recently, ams has pioneered the trend of providing complete ‘sensor solutions’. This reflects the peripheral nature of the sensor. In a smart, connected light, for instance, the core function is implemented by the lamp or light engine. In a health/fitness wristband, it is the embedded processor and the smartphone app that it supports.

A sensor solution, then, provides an easily usable digital output to a host microcontroller or processor. This often calls for more than just mixed-signal semiconductor know-how. A solution such as the AS7000 bio-sensor module – which enables wristbands and watches to implement heart rate measurement – combines optoelectronics, a processor and algorithms built into the sensor’s firmware, with detailed optical and mechanical design guidelines to ensure that the device’s LEDs and light sensors make secure contact with the user’s skin.

When implemented in a wristband according to the guidelines, the AS7000 provides a reliable, accurate digital output, counting heartbeats per minute and measuring the intervals between beats, giving the wristband manufacturer a ready-made heart rate sensor SoC.

The development of sensors which feed the IoT’s hunger for micro- and macro-data will continue to require this same attention to the characteristics of the application. It must also stretch continually the limits of what is possible in terms of power consumption, accuracy, linearity and sensitivity.

By providing sensor solutions which meet these new, demanding standards, ams hopes to enjoy a golden age for the sensor IC, seeing analogue sensor technology implemented in more devices and more device types, sensing an ever greater range of real-world phenomena, and spurring a third age of growth for the endlessly inventive and dynamic semiconductor industry.

ams

ams is a global leader in the design and manufacture of advanced sensor solutions and analog ICs. Our mission is to shape the world with sensor solutions by providing a seamless interface between humans and technology. ams’ high-performance analog products drive applications requiring extreme precision, dynamic range, sensitivity, and ultra-low power consumption. Products include sensors, sensor interfaces, power management and wireless ICs for consumer, communications, industrial, medical, and automotive markets.

With headquarters in Austria, ams employs more than 1800 people globally and serves more than 8000 customers worldwide.

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Author
Thomas Riener

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