The industry, and more specifically Europe, needs to prepare for the rise of the Internet of Things, the head of MEMS work at STMicroelectronics told delegates at the DATE conference this morning – much of it driven by a change in the way that the mobile phone interacts with its environment.
Referring to the widespread adoption of motion sensors in mobile phones, Benedetto Vigna, general manager of the analog, MEMS and sensors group at ST, said in his opening keynote speech at DATE in Grenoble, France: “We have in front of us a unique opportunity, similar to that five years ago in MEMS. The Internet of Things is at the same stage we had five to seven years ago. We are in that phase – then they asked ‘why do you need accelerometers in a phone?’
Vigna said Apple’s head Steve Jobs saw the potential. “Mobile phones were using MEMS from 2002. But they only became a selling feature with the iPhone 1,” Vigna said.
Vigna said there are four key development areas for MEMS that will help drive the Internet of Things: motion; acoustic; environmental and chemical sensors; and microactuators “where you need to make small movements”.
Although the ultimate market for many of these sensors will be distributed around the home, office and street, Vigna argued that the mobile phone will drive many of them. He pointed to chemical sensors as having integration issues because they need other materials than silicon. “They tend to get polluted. Also, how can you have volume production if it’s not compatible with surface mounting?”
Vigna noted: “The mobile phone is an excellent opportunity to minituarize technology. The smartphone is a way to stress suppliers and research centres to optimize the sensors for a volume market. Over the next few years, the phone will start to have environmental sensors – measuring pressure, temperature and humidity.”
At the same time, the phone will make greater use of sensors installed around it using network accesses. Vigna called this the “distributed phone”. He said: “Sensors can be on the phone, on the body or in the environment.”
Vigna stressed: “We as Europeans can’t miss this opportunity. And that of the distributed phone. This will change the landscape. We have the opportunity and the duty to create an important role in this race.”
One issue that faces the Internet of Things is how to power them. Energy harvesting is one option, but Vigna said it is important to not rule out the role of the battery. He said harvesting is rarely compatible with silicon because technologies such as vibration energy capture require realtively large masses.
“And we should not forget the roadmap of companies making batteries. The most widely used system in the world is TPMS – the tire pressure monitoring system. The battery there is really cheap and the price is less than 20 cents for a battery that lasts 20 years.
“Energy harvesting is importnant but we have to realize that silicon is not the solution and that batteries are very cheap. Companies like Sanyo are working very hard to increase capacity and lower cost.”