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Sensing the Century

Photonics Spectra
Dec 1999
As sensors continue to become smaller and more powerful, they also are expected to advance in sense and sensitivity.

Hank Hogan, Contributing Editor

The Deep Space 2 microprobe, which recently slammed into Mars, only hints at what's possible in the next century as smart sensors merge with biological and chemical systems, according to Barbara Wilson, chief technologist and director of NASA's Center for Space Microelectronics Technology at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "We will have much more powerful systems -- systems that are more able to have the characteristics that living organisms do, such as self-healing, adaptability and more robust capability," she predicted.

Photonics is expected to play an important part in this. Light can be produced and sensed with electronics, and microscopic mirrors play a role in digital image processing. Therefore, photonics is a natural for creating future sensors. Part of this wizardry is already visible in the development of microelectromechanical systems (MEMS).

In looking at where smart sensors are headed, Bell Labs' David Bishop sees an era of sensor fusion. What previously were separate functions done by different devices will instead be done by a single integrated device. From this may come an improved data stream.

Inexpensive and powerful sensors are intriguing enough, but that is only part of the sensor revolution. Take the case of monitoring a patient. Temperature, blood pressure, heart rate and skin moisture reveal a great deal of information, but only if the data are conveyed to the right decision maker. So what's needed is a sensor web, one that combines communication, sensing and intelligence.


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