While the recent Sensors Expo conference in San Jose clearly demonstrated the important role sensors currently play in today’s connected world, attendees are also eager to learn what future sensor technologies will emerge in coming years. Alissa Fitzgerald, President of MEMS design and consulting firm AMFitzgerald and Associates, presented an interesting look into upcoming sensor developments in a conference session.

Noting that most future sensor technologies have their roots in research projects at university labs, Fitzgerald gave the example of one product, Chirp Microsystems’ MEMS Ultrasound time of flight (ToF) sensor (see video), had its roots in research at the University of California at Berkeley back in 2012. The product was a finalist at Sensors Expo’s annual Innovation Award’s competition this year.

Fitzgerald mentioned several promising sensor technologies in various stages of R&D. Of these, event-driven sensors were the closest to commercialization, which she projected would be within the next five years. Northeastern University, for instance, is researching a sensor built to detect infrared light waves that would essentially remain off until an event is detected. Standby power requirements are almost nil. Fitzgerald suggested IoT and security as future applications for event-driven sensor technology.

Also in the development pipeline are piezoelectric resonators, which integrated piezoelectric technology in CMOS and thus occupy a small footprint with no package needed. These resonators could work in RF filters for 5G, millimeter wave imaging, and personal radar applications, according to Fitzgerald.

Piezoelectric technology is also being looked for ultrasonic transceivers located inside the body, Fitzgerald said. Such transceivers could improve applications such as imaging telemetry, health monitoring, and wearable sensors, although the concept still needs a lot of testing.

3D printing is starting to make an impact in many prototyping and low-volume manufacturing applications, and Fitzgerald noted that research is now being done on a screen-printed potentiometric sensor with a porous 3D printed housing. The sensor’s biodegradable sensor would allow time-based sampling for agriculture and environmental monitoring applications. The challenges in advancing this technology would be development the manufacturing infrastructure for mass production, according to Fitzgerald.

Even further down the research pipeline is a dissolvable paper-based battery that uses bacteria as an electron source. The battery could provide power for temporary medical implants, environmental sensors, and disposable consumer electronics. This idea is now in the early stage proof of concept and is at least a decade away, Fitzgerald noted.