The Magic of MEMS Sensing and Actuation

October 18, 2021

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The Magic of MEMS Sensing and Actuation

Most developers know the important role sensors and actuators play in the smart systems that bridge the physical and digital worlds. 

Naturally, those sensors don’t work alone. They need the vital contributions of the analog, connectivity, and power solutions under the control of an MCU to work their magic. Of course, that magic requires the expertise and wizardry of engineers.

Although magicians and wizards aren’t supposed to share their secrets, STMicroelectronics has organized the annual ST Developers Conference (aka ST DevCon) and created the dozens of presentations and webinars that you can now watch for specific insights into the key trends we see impacting a range of important applications. With luck – and a bit of magic – you’ll find some tricks to add to your repertoire to thrill your customers and impress your bosses.

Sensors and actuators play a key role in smart mobility, power & energy, and IoT & 5G. These three areas are among the most dynamic in today’s technology. In smart mobility, car makers are building vehicles that are greener, safer, and more connected. These cars are relying more and more on smart sensors and actuators to enable different levels of automation. Today, ST contributes in various ways, such as cameras, radar, ultrasonic, Lidar, inertial and pressure sensors, and many more. And we’ve still barely scratched the surface; we have a few more tricks and technologies up our sleeves.

Sensors and Actuators Here, There, and Everywhere

In power & energy, sensors can monitor everything from electrical characteristics to machine conditions. In fact, condition monitoring and the associated development of predictive maintenance techniques are very important tools to keep industrial machines operating efficiently.

And as we – and everything we use – are connected practically 24/7/365, the IoT & 5G technologies employ a full range of embedded sensors and actuators to enhance existing applications or enable brilliant new ones.

Because of the ubiquity of these sensors, actuators, and connectivity, we have entered what we are calling the “Onlife era” of sensing.

The Onlife era magically follows from previous electronic sensing eras. Recall around about 2006/2007 when MEMS sensors first became a “thing,” they were used in applications such as gaming devices for offline, local functions like sensing the motion of throwing a bowling ball. Even when they first appeared in smartphones, sensors of that era were generally limited to enhancing the local user experience. That era’s MEMS sensors also brought magic and wizardry to the automotive market, supporting passive safety in cars with high-G accelerometers in airbags, for example.

In the following decade, cloud connectivity brought sensors into the online era. They became more accurate and they became useful to collect and distribute data that was used locally or uploaded to the cloud for processing. They were broadly adopted in industrial, medical, and automotive domains.

And now we are in the Onlife era, where sensing technology is fusing with life.

With today’s sensors, our devices can adapt to their specific environment – whether that is on a person, attached to a motor, or part of a car. In the Onlife era devices contain sensors that “think.” They collect inputs, process them, and adapt their actions accordingly.

How Smart is a Sensor?

How does a smart sensor think? And why would it want to? Sensors can produce very large amounts of highly accurate measurement data. Online-era sensors send this raw data somewhere – to an MCU, to the Cloud – to be processed. The cost is reflected in more storage and power consumption, along with greater processing latency.

Instead, processing data at the sensor where it is being generated using the minimal effective processing power to extract only the relevant information allows designs to reduce storage, power costs, and latency. While co-locating ultra-low-power microcontrollers with the sensors is one step in this direction, ST has introduced several sensors using machine-learning techniques from the world of AI to achieve minimal, effective processing.

ST offers a variety of sensors and actuators that cover a spectrum of applications across many markets. And many offer the potential to create a whole new category of Onlife applications. All ST sensors and actuators complement the other elements of our portfolio, and we offer integrated development kits and solution examples to make your life easier.

Onlife applications aren’t the only sensor and actuator magic we’re working on. Earlier this year, ST joined several other tech leaders to turn on the LaSAR Alliance. Leveraging ST’s leadership in the design, manufacture, and sales of Laser Beam Scanning (LBS) solutions for Near-to-Eye displays, LiDAR, and 3D scanning Time-of-Flight applications, the alliance is creating an ecosystem to foster and encourage the development and promotion of technologies, components, devices, techniques and solutions to enable the efficient design and manufacture of augmented reality wearable devices including smart glasses and head-mounted displays.

Sensors and actuators have played – and will continue to play – key roles in bridging the physical and digital world and making the magic that enables key trends in the electronics industry. ST is in the midst of an era where sensors are enabling a fusion of technology and life in the Onlife era by developing solutions that meet customer needs through innovation.

To learn more, STMicroelectronics invites you to vitrually attend the ST Developers Conference on October 26 and 27, free by registering at www.st.com/devcon.

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