What’s tiny and on track to be worth $22 billion dollars by 2018? MEMS (Micro Electrical Mechanical Systems). That’s a catch-all phrase for microscopic devices that have moving parts. Usually, the component sizes range from 0.1 mm to 0.001 mm, which is tiny, indeed. There are some researchers working with even smaller components, sometimes referenced as NEMS (Nano Electrical Mechanical Systems).
MEMS have a wide range of applications including ink jet printers, accelerometers, gyroscopes, microphones, pressure sensors, displays, and more. Many of the sensors in a typical cell phone would not be possible without MEMS. There are many ways that MEMS devices are built, but just to get a flavor, consider the cantilever (see right), one of the most common MEMS constructions.
Have you, dear reader, ever needed to plot the position of a swimming pool noodle in 3D and in real time? Of course you have, and today, you’re in luck! I’ve compiled together a solution that’s sure to give you the jumpstart on solving this “problem-you-never-knew-you-had.”
Ok, there’s a bit of a story behind this one. Back in my good-ol’ undergrad days, I got the chance to play with tethered underwater robots. I remember fumbling about thinking: “Hmm, with this robot tether, wouldn’t it be sweet to string up a set of IMUs down the length of the tether to estimate the robot’s location in 3-space?” A few years later, I cooked together this IMU Noodle project to play with some real hardware in the spirit of solving that problem. With a little quaternion math, a nifty IMU, and some custom PCBAs, this idea has gone from some idle brain-ramble into a real device. It’s an incredibly interesting example of using available hardware and a little ingenuity to build a system that is unique and dependable.
As for why? I first saw an IMU noodle pop up on these pages back in 2012 and I was baffled. I just had to build one! Now complete, I figured that there’s enough math and fun-loving electronics nuggets to merit a full article for this month’s after-hour adventures. Dear reader, let me tell you a wonderful story where math meets electronics and works up the courage to ask it out for brunch.
How do you measure the mass of something really, really tiny? Like fish-embryo tiny. There aren’t many scales with the sensitivity and the resolution to make meaningful measurements in the nanogram range, so you’ve got to turn to other methods, like measuring changes in the resonant frequency of a glass tube. And that turns out to be cheap and easy for the home gamer to reproduce.
In a recent scholarly paper, [William Grover] et al from the University of California Riverside outline the surprisingly simple and clever method of weighing zebrafish embryos, an important model organism used in all sorts of developmental biology and environmental research. [Grover]’s method is a scaled-up version of a suspended microchannel resonator (SMR), a microelectromechanical device that can measure the mass of single cells or even weigh a virus particle. Rather than etch the resonator out of silicon, a U-shaped glass tube is vibrated by a piezoelectric speaker and kept at its resonant frequency by feedback from a cheap photointerrupter. When an embryo is pumped into the tube, the slight change in mass alters the resonant frequency of the system, which is easily detected by the photointerrupter. The technique can even be leveraged to measure volume and density of the embryos, and all for about $12 in parts.
In the lab, [Grover]’s team uses a data acquisition card and LabVIEW to run the resonant loop, but there’s no reason a DIY version of this couldn’t use an Arduino. In fact, tipster [Douglas Miller] expects someone out there will try this, and would appreciate hearing the details. You can ping him on his hackaday.io page.
As the devices with which we surround ourselves become ever more connected to the rest of the world, a lot more thought is being given to their security with respect to the internet. It’s important to remember though that this is not the only possible attack vector through which they could be compromised. All devices that incorporate sensors or indicators have the potential to be exploited in some way, whether that is as simple as sniffing the data stream expressed through a flashing LED, or a more complex attack.
Researchers at the University of Michigan and the University of South Carolina have demonstrated a successful attack against MEMS accelerometers such as you might find in a smartphone. They are using carefully crafted sound waves, and can replicate at will any output the device should be capable of returning.
MEMS accelerometers have a microscopic sprung weight with protruding plates that form part of a set of capacitors. The displacement of the weight due to acceleration is measured by looking at the difference between the capacitance on either side of the plates.
The team describe their work in the video we’ve put below the break, though frustratingly they don’t go into quite enough detail other than mentioning anti-aliasing. We suspect that they vibrate the weight such that it matches the sampling frequency of the sensor, and constantly registers a reading at a point on its travel they can dial in through the phase of their applied sound. They demonstrate interference with a model car controlled by a smartphone, and spurious steps added to a Fitbit. The whole thing is enough for the New York Times to worry about hacking a phone with sound waves, which is rather a predictable overreaction that is not shared by the researchers themselves.
A gravimeter, as the name suggests, measures gravity. These specialized accelerometers can find underground resources and measure volcanic activity. Unfortunately, traditional instruments are relatively large and expensive (nearly 20 pounds and $100,000). Of course, MEMS accelerometers are old hat, but none of them have been stable enough to be called gravimeters. Until now.
In a recent edition of Nature (pdf), researchers at the University of Glasgow have built a MEMS device that has the stability to work as a gravimeter. To demonstrate this, they used it to measure the tides over six days.
The device functions as a relative gravimeter. Essentially a tiny weight hangs from a tiny spring, and the device measures the pull of gravity on the spring. The design of the Glasgow device has a low resonate frequency (2.3 Hz).
Small and inexpensive devices could monitor volcanoes or fly on drones to find tunnels or buried oil and gas (a job currently done by low altitude aircraft). We’ve covered MEMS accelerometers before, although not at this stability level. We’ve even seen an explanation from the Engineer Guy.
An embedded MEMS sensor might be lots of fun to play with on your first foray into the embedded world–why not deploy a whole network of them? Alas, the problem with communicating with a series of identical sensors becomes increasingly complicated as we start needing to handle the details of signal integrity and the communication protocols to handle all that data. Fortunately, [Artem], [Hsin-Liu], and [Joseph] at MIT Media Labs have made sensor deployment as easy as unraveling a strip of tape from your toolkit. They’ve developed SensorTape, an unrollable, deployable network of interconnected IMU and proximity sensors packaged in a familiar form factor of a roll of masking tape.
Possibly the most interesting technical challenge in a string of connected sensor nodes is picking a protocol that will deliver appreciable data rates with low latency. For that task the folks at MIT Media labs picked a combination of I²C and peer-to-peer serial. I²C accomodates the majority of transmissions from master to tape-node slave, but addresses are assigned dynamically over serial via inter-microcontroller communication. The net effect is a fast transfer rate of 100 KHz via I²C with a protocol initialization sequence that accommodates chains of various lengths–up to 128 units long! The full details behind the protocol are in their paper [PDF].
With a system as reconfigurable as SensorTape, new possibilities unfold with a solid framework for deploying sensors and aggregating the data. Have a look at their video after the break to get a sense of some of the use-cases that they’ve uncovered. Beyond their discoveries, there are certainly plenty others. What happens when we spin them up in the dryer, lay them under our car or on the ceiling? These were questions we may never have dreamed up because the tools just didn’t exist! Our props are out to SensorTape for giving us a tool to explore a world of sensor arrays without having to trip over ourselves in the implementation details.
Comedian Steven Wright used to say (in his monotone way):
“We lived in a house that ran on static electricity. If we wanted to cook something, we had to take a sweater off real quick. If we wanted to run a blender, we had to rub balloons on our head.”
Turns out, all you need to generate a little electricity is some paper, Teflon tape and a pencil. A team from EPFL, working with researchers at the University of Tokyo, presented just such a device at a MEMS conference. (And check out their video, below the break.)