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National Science Foundation
Sensor Tech
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A fingernail-sized position sensor...

This prototype of a fingernail-sized position sensor integrates three gyroscopes on a single silicon chip.

Credit: Andrei M. Shkel, Micro-Systems Laboratory, University of California, Irvine

Cover Page

Credit: Design by Sara Raimo, National Science Foundation. Microcantilever image by Kenneth Hsu, Arun Majumdar, Department of Mechanical Engineering, University of California, Berkeley. Walrus network image © 2002 The Regents of the University of California, all rights reserved; for commercial use contact: invent@ucsd.edu


In the 1980s, the PC revolution put computing at our fingertips.

In the 1990s, the Internet revolution connected us to an information web that spans the planet.

And now the next revolution is connecting the Internet back to the physical world we live in-in effect, giving that world its first electronic nervous system.

Call it the Sensor Revolution: an outpouring of devices that monitor our surroundings in ways we could barely imagine a few years ago. Some of it is already here. The rest is coming soon.

Environment & Civil Infrastructure:

Networks of wireless humidity sensors monitor fire danger in remote forests. Nitrate sensors detect agricultural runoff in rivers, streams and wells, while distributed seismic monitors provide an early warning system for earthquakes. Meanwhile built-in stress sensors report on the structural integrity of bridges, buildings and roadways, and other man-made structures.


Industry & Commerce:

On the factory floor, networked vibration sensors warn that a bearing is beginning to fail. Mechanics schedule overnight maintenance, preventing an expensive unplanned shutdown. Inside a refrigerated grocery truck, temperature and humidity sensors monitor individual containers, reducing spoilage in fragile fish or produce.



Sensors embedded in clothing, networked with additional in-body sensors, continuously monitor our vital signs. The first indication of an impending heart attack or dangerously high blood pressure leads to early medical intervention. Surges in a diabetic's blood sugar levels, monitored continuously by minuscule sensors, trigger insulin delivery from an infusion pump, perfectly mimicking a healthy pancreas.


Safety & Security:

Firefighters scatter wireless sensors throughout a burning building to map hot spots and flare-ups. Simultaneously, the sensors provide an emergency communications network. Miniature chemical and biological sensors in hospitals, post offices, and transportation centers raise an alarm at the first sign of anthrax, smallpox, ricin, or other terror agents.



The National Science Foundation (NSF) has supported basic research on sensors for decades and now has a foundation-wide Sensors and Sensor Networks Program.

Still, with all this activity in sensor technology, it's fair to ask, "Why all the excitement now? Haven't sensors been around forever?"

By M. Mitchell Waldrop and Philip Lippel

Next: Convergence

The Sensor Revolution A Special Report