Cheaper, smarter motion sensors, thanks to an electric field and physics

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Center for Bits and Atoms have built a cheaper, simpler motion sensor made of a tiny metal bead suspended by a fluctuating electric field.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Center for Bits and Atoms have built a cheaper, simpler motion sensor made of a tiny metal bead suspended by a fluctuating electric field.

The field holds the bead in a tight orbit, according to the center's director, Neil Gershenfeld. Disturbances of the orbit indicate the sensor's direction of motion.

Today's miniature motion sensors require high-tech, billion-dollar facilities that can make the precisely micro-machined parts needed for them.

But the researchers' development allows them to exploit the dynamics of simple physical systems -- meaning sensors could become more responsive, cheaper and simpler.

With motion sensors determining the orientation of cell phones, deployment of air bags in cars and stress levels of buildings and mechanical systems, the possibilities are wide in scope.

The researchers call such sensors "microdynamical" devices, and foresee using them to measure sound, pressure, fluid-flow and magnetic fields.

The researchers say their device can do the work of at least six different micromechanical sensors: measure linear motion in three dimensions (taking the place of three expensive accelerometers) and sense orientation (taking the place of three expensive gyroscopes).

By simplifying the system, the six-dimensional sensor could make motion detection of handheld devices much more precise, the researchers said.

The researchers believe that their six-dimensional microdynamical sensor could be manufactured for a tenth as much as a single accelerometer -- a big advancement for human-to-electronic interfaces.

What's more, it can help with location tasks where GPS information is unreliable or imprecise. Local spatial tracking could let nurses and doctors determine each other's locations in a large hospital.

For now, the question is how researchers can generate the electrical field required for such a device without adversely affecting the battery life in a device such as a smartphone.

Further, researchers are still determining how to measure the particle's oscillation.

Their research was published in a recent issue of the journal Applied Physics Letters.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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