Accelerometers Are Actually Quite Simple

An accelerometer is the ubiquitous little sensor that tells your tablet when to flip orientation or informs the brain of your quadcopter how closely its actual actions are matching your desired ones. In a quick three minutes, [Afroman] explains what is inside an accelerometer and how they work.

It turns out the tiny devices that report acceleration in one, two or three dimensions are not powered by magic complicated mechanisms but very simple Micro Electro-Mechanical Systems or “MEMS.” MEMS are similar to copper/silver/gold-wired integrated circuits except in a MEMS circuit conductive silicon is used and they actually physically move, but only just a bit.

The secret is in creating microscopic capacitors along a weighted lever that flexes in response to changes in velocity. When the plates flex the distance between them changes which alters the capacitance. This translates physical motion into voltage which can then be interpreted by the rest of your circuit. The chemistry behind MEMS is interesting too.

This Christmas when your laptop’s power cord clotheslines your cousin’s kid, your hard drive has a chance of parking the head (on the drive, not on the child) between fall and impact and preventing damage (to the drive, not to the child) because of an accelerometer. If bad roads cause you to drift into the ditch, it is an accelerometer that senses the crash and tells your airbag to deploy before your body hits the steering wheel.

The MEMS market is exploding right now and for us hackers in particular, Wearables are looking to be a big part of that growth.

DIY Airbag, explosions included


Your car’s airbag is one of the major engineering accomplishments of the auto industry. In an accident, a whole host of processes must take place in sequence to keep your face from slamming into the steering wheel, and  everything must happen in just a fraction of a second. [Steve] over at Make thought it would be a cool idea to discover what actually goes in to saving a life with an airbag and decided to build his own.

The electronics of the build consisted of an accelerometer and an Arduino. A lot of research, development, and experimentation has gone into the algorithms that trigger airbags, but [Steve] decided to keep things simple: when a sudden acceleration is detected, set off a small charge of black powder.

The airbag itself is ripstop nylon reinforced with canvas, contained in a small wooded box fitted with hinged doors. All these components are put on wheeled aluminum test rig, manned with a honeydew melon crash test dummy, and pulled into a short wall at a few miles per hour.

Despite [Steve] not putting hundreds of thousands of man hours into the development of his airbag – unlike the ones you’ll find in your steering column – his device actually worked pretty well. While not a complete success, he did manage to come up with something that both looks and acts like the familiar device that has saved countless lives.