In this detailed interview, Dr. Peter Hartwell, Senior Director of Advanced Technology at InvenSense, discusses current MEMS and sensors technology trends. He also highlights emerging applications such as personal robotics, health and wellness, and smart manufacturing. Dr. Hartwell discusses some of the most interesting MEMS and sensors companies that he has seen recently, and he also comments on the applications of MEMS and sensors in ADAS and autonomous vehicles applications. Peter also reviews the history of InvenSense and its planned future roadmap, now as part of TDK. And we discuss the main challenges of integrating sensors in IoT applications.
Peter Hartwell: We see major growth markets for sensors such as robotics, wellness, and smart factories. For robotics, as an example, we see smart speakers that are demonstrating that a voice interface can make the home digital assistant a reality. From simple home automation to shopping and security, it’s just a matter of time before these devices are mobilized and able to follow us around the house. Just imagine: with more sensors, such as imaging and ultrasonic range finding, the smart speaker can be turned into a robot able to successfully navigate, patrol, or return to its charger. In the wellness arena, we are seeing wearables sensors, combined with machine learning, creating a new host of services around lifestyle decisions. Our beneficial obsession with our health is driving applications for new sensors to monitor vital signs with tight constraints on size and power, demanded by the comfort of the wearable and a good customer experience. Finally, smart factory technologies (also known as Industry 4.0) are getting into the mainstream with the emergence of the industrial IoT at scale, where diverse sensors are improving productivity, reducing waste, and monitoring the environmental impact of manufacturing.
MEMS Journal: What are the main applications that InvenSense is pursuing right now and how has that evolved over the years?
Peter Hartwell: Our main applications in smartphones are navigation and imaging, and over time we expect more IoT and industrial applications will emerge. Our business started with a focus on gyroscopes for the mass market. The entry point was image stability in cameras and has morphed into more general user interface for consumer electronics (i.e., answering the question, “What is the user doing with the device?”). The original application for “big iron” gyroscopes was navigation, so it’s natural that as MEMS gyroscope performance has improved, navigation has become enabled in an ever-increasing array of applications that previously couldn’t afford the size, weight, or cost of the early, non-MEMS technologies. Our business has changed along with this, adding software resources that fuse multiple data sources and bring performance to a higher level. The state-of-the-art has allowed us to create an infrastructure-less navigation technology that fills in the void where GNSS systems cannot operate. This will address the consumer desire to never be lost, provide new connections to products and services, and is ultimately essential to the autonomous operation of robots and vehicles.
MEMS Journal: How much are you currently doing in the ADAS and autonomous vehicle market segment?
Peter Hartwell: We are one of several TDK group companies partnering with automotive OEMs to advance the fuel efficiency, safety, and comfort and connectivity of cars. TDK-InvenSense’s sensors, sensor solutions, and platforms are used in today’s automotive applications that are bringing autonomous vehicles closer to reality, such as navigation/dead reckoning, skid and stability control, roll detection, audio (microphone) noise cancellation, and voice commands..
MEMS Journal: Which other interesting (i.e. non TDK or InvenSense) MEMS and non-MEMS based sensor technologies have you seen recently?
Peter Hartwell: At the annual TDK Sensors Development Conference (SDC) in late October 2017, we heard from some of the industry’s most creative thinkers about sensors with greater visual intelligence and autonomy for applications such as drones, service robots, wearables, autonomous vehicles, and more. There are ongoing discussions and development work devoted to creating advancements in low-power and low-latency hardware that address deep neural networks performance. There is work being done to bring to life multi-modal sensing to improve service robots, surveillance systems, and home control centers. We’re also excited about the vision of AR/VR handsets with 6DOF pose, position, and mapping. This is a great time to be working in the field of sensors, because there are so many possibilities for significant breakthroughs.
MEMS Journal: What are the main trends with sensors for smartphones right now?
Peter Hartwell: Among the smartphone sensor trends, we’re watching are ultrasonic sensor solutions that utilize an array of small ultrasound transducers to send out a pulse of soundwaves. By calculating the time-of-flight (ToF), the technology is able to determine the location of an object relative to a device and trigger a programmed behavior.
Connected to this technology will be the use of built-in ultrasonic proximity sensor solutions and in-screen fingerprint sensor technologies. For example, the first smartphone with in-screen fingerprint sensors to replace the physical home button captured a lot of attention at CES 2018, and we expect to see others introducing smartphones with these sensor technologies in the coming months.
We’re also tracking advancements in optical image stabilization (OIS) and electronic image stabilization (EIS). One recent use case supports dual-front cameras for improved photos.
Increasingly miniaturized form factors and low power consumption will continue to be important to support further advancements in cameras (3D imaging, for example).
Finally, location is an ongoing area of development with the increased use of existing sensors (such as accelerometer, gyroscope, and magnetometer) to produce indoor location insights, assisted automotive tracking, and sports data accuracy.
MEMS Journal: What are some of the interesting MEMS and sensors companies that you’ve recently seen, and why do you think they are interesting?
Peter Hartwell: There are many interesting MEMS and sensors companies to watch, but the following two companies deserve a second look: Chirp Microsystems based in Berkeley, California and Sensifree based in Israel and Cupertino, California.
Chirp makes tiny MEMS-based solutions that use ultrasonic versus optical technology. The design has millimeter precision and low-power consumption. We’re impressed by the company’s proprietary and patent-pending gesture classification library (GCL) based on machine learning and neural network algorithms. The library and Chirp’s ultrasonic sensing platform enable intuitive, natural gesture-based user interfaces for a variety of smart IoT devices to detect and track users’ gestures in a 3D space. The team behind the technology are researchers from Berkeley Sensor and Actuator Center (BSAC) and SwarmLAB at UC Berkeley and UC Davis.
Sensifree is a developer of an RF-based, low-power biomedical sensor that detects movement in the arterial wall to record pulse and blood volume, and collects a range of continuous biometric data without the need to touch the human body. We believe the use of sensors in the biomedical field is still in its infancy in terms of its full potential.
MEMS Journal: What are the main challenges for integrating sensors in IoT applications?
Peter Hartwell: Sensors are the center of the IoT for gathering, processing, and outputting valuable data. Sensors will ultimately enable connected devices to behave autonomously by being contextually aware of their environment, and thus able to make independent, intelligent decisions. All of this data collection, processing, and transmission must take place in a way that offloads processing from primary applications, thereby saving system power and improving performance in always-on scenarios.
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