Contributing Editor, MEMS Investor Journal
U.S. Department of Homeland Security has been exploring ways to deploy sensors nationwide by riding on the existing infrastructure, such utility poles, street lights, traffic signals and government weather stations, all of which have been proposed as recipients of a nationwide deployment of MEMS sensors. The massive funding required for such a nationwide deployment has not materialized, and yet millions of MEMS sensors are being deployed in a worldwide wireless network – namely, inside laptop computers and smartphones.
Within five years, MEMS sensors is predicted to be in all cell phones – and every one will be part of a global wireless network. Apple set the pace, first by adding a MEMS accelerometer to its laptops and iPhone, after which other laptop and smartphone makers followed suit. And now by adding a MEMS gyroscope and proximity sensor to the iPhone 4, the entire cell phone industry is destined to follow its lead again.
According to iSuppli, cell phone makers will spur unit sales of MEMS gyroscopes from a few million units per month for tasks such as image stabilization in digital cameras today, to hundreds of millions of units for cell phones alone. From zero in 2009, gyroscopes in cell phones will rise to 26 million units in 2010 to 285 million units by 2014 – a $220 million market. By then, all except low-end cell phones will have accelerometers and GPS units, forcing high-end phones to differentiate by adding full inertial measurement units (IMUs). IMUs add the necessary magnetometer (for compass readings) and MEMS barometric pressure sensor (for determining altitude), which together enable a smartphone to fully participate in location-based services, but which can also be lashed into wireless sensor networks.
By 2020, as many as a billion cell phones could come studded with a wide variety of MEMS sensors and actuators, all of which can be harnessed together into a global wireless sensor network. As a result, a new wave of applications will rise with the grow of this global wireless sensor network, pioneering new billion dollar consumer markets along the way.
Earthquake warning systems are the first to take advantage of this mass deployment. The Quake Catcher Network, for instance, is building a worldwide network of laptop computers using their MEMS accelerometers. Quake Catcher has attracted thousands of voluntary participants worldwide who allow the MEMS accelerometers in their laptops to be used to constantly monitor earthquake activity.
Aiming to surpass the Quake Catcher Network is a pioneering effort just going online this summer. Called the Community Seismic Network, its goal is to send last minute warnings to smartphone users that an earthquake is about to hit. The theory is that earthquakes travel through land at a slower pace than phone calls which travel at the speed of light – this provides up to a minute of warning to users in a radiating circle from the quake's epicenter.
Both the Quake Catcher and the Community Seismic Network are free today, but using a cell phone's MEMS sensor to give users a minute's warning of impending doom is a service for which people would likely be willing to pay. And with billions of cell phones destined to include these MEMS sensors in the future, the emergence of billion dollar markets harnessing these sensors seems inevitable.
Of course, detecting earthquakes is just the beginning. As other MEMS sensors get added to cell phones, the possibilities for using them to not only detect emergencies, but to monitor the environment, provide real-time advice on atmospheric conditions as well as other service-oriented applications is endless.
Eventually, the MEMS sensors being deployed in cell phones worldwide will be knitted together into global wireless sensor networks on a scale that makes nearly every adult on the planet a participant in these new service markets.Copyright 2010 MEMS Investor Journal