The unexpected application of sensors

Engineering at 30 Frames: Sensors can lead to some impressive feats, even more so when it’s given to those with little familiarity with control engineering concepts.


We occasionally overlook the wonder of sensors. It's easy to understand why... the mechanism behind sensors doesn’t change regardless of the application. The (sensor) device measures a quantity, status, or characteristic then converts that measurement to a signal. That signal is then read by another instrument or observed. It’s easy to look past something so basic to the control engineer’s everyday life.

On the other hand, sensors are often looked at by lay people with a bit of mysterious wonder. They can lead to mundane confusion (How do I turn on the lights in this bathroom?) to anger (Why isn’t water coming out of the sink?) to pure wonder (Go, Roomba, go!) to angered wonder (How many photo enforced lights are there in Chicago?!). But the real magic of sensors is brought out when those not “traditionally” trained or familiar with them deconstruct and create with them.

I find myself impressed with sensors on a daily basis. Despite being fairly common, I still find a sense of wonder when I realize there are several in things we consistently use throughout the day. One of the most awe-inspiring things I’ve come to own is an Xbox 360 console and with a Kinect peripheral, which – if you’ve been under a rock for the last couple years –is a motion capture device that allows videogame players to experience a more interactive way to game. This technology has already been ported to PC applications which are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to possible future uses for this technology.

For instance, Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre has been trying out possible means to control x-ray imagery in the midst of surgery. This can help shorten surgery times, as there is no need to leave the operating room to look at x-rays or other scans, and allows for more accurate surgery because the images can be checked more often. The technology may come as a no-brainer to the control engineering world, but the solution didn’t arise until the technology was shipped out to the masses and deconstructed for a different purpose.

FoldIt Protein Modeling

Similarly, microbiologists have looked to non-technical applications to solve a question lingering for years: Gamers logged on to Foldit, a puzzle “game”, to decipher the crystal structure of a protein that causes AIDS and succeeded in only 10 days (scientists had been working on the problem for 15 years).

I believe non-traditional applications can lend a great deal of insight to most everything we do, but especially in the way of making better use of the amazing technology we deal with on a daily basis. I suggest that the next time you encounter an especially challenging problem at work, you take it home and try dancing in front of your TV to solve it.

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