Special-Edition Viewpoints Address The Pandemic Crisis

In May and June 2020, Explorer Viewpoints provided a set of analyses and scenarios that investigate the impact of the covid-19 pandemic on technology commercialization. Also featured: The Pandemic Crisis: Scenarios for the Future of Technology Development, a presentation summarizing three hypothetical future pathways for technology development in the wake of the pandemic.

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About This Technology

Each year, billions of sensors find use in new cars, cell phones, medical equipment, industrial equipment, and much more, detecting and responding to stimulation such as pressure, motion, and chemical concentration. Increasingly, smart systems make use of sensors to automate control of machines and generate actionable alerts; AI-enhanced sensors and data-fusion technologies make sense of continuous streams of data. Sensor networks play roles in building security, policing, weather prediction, seismic monitoring, and smart-city applications such as connected parking spaces and streetlights. Sensors come in many shapes and sizes, but chip-size microsensors are often the best choices, partly because the sensors make very economical use of manufacturing methods that emerged from the semiconductor business and partly because of their abilities to process and interpret data in smart systems. A key family of methods enables chips with tiny moving parts—microelectromechanical systems—and is responsible for very high volumes of sensors, especially multiaxis accelerometers and gyroscopes for cell phones and cars. Current technology and business developments seek to apply smart and networked sensors to enhance health care, energy efficiency, and environmental protection and to include sensors in disruptive roles such as enabling autonomous vehicles, intelligent security systems at airports, advanced medical implants, and robots that interact with people safely.

The first uses of real-time sensor-fusion hardware and microsensors were in high-cost military and aerospace applications. Today, new cars and even some smartphones contain dozens of sensors in each unit. In vehicles, sensors are essential for controlling combustion, activating safety systems, and maintaining comfort. In smartphones, sensors control games and enable turn-by-turn navigation apps; many high-end phones also contain advanced smart camera chips that extend the boundaries of what no-moving-parts imaging systems can do. Wearable devices estimate how active a user is, and emerging augmented-reality headsets track head position and gaze direction to control user interfaces. Beyond providing consumer products, high-value markets fulfill needs in industry, science, and medicine. For medical diagnosis, many styles of sensors are in use; notably, for safe surgeries, very many disposable blood-pressure sensors monitor the status of patients. At airports, use of millimeter-wave radar systems has likewise become routine. Markets for chemical and gas sensors are less developed, but the devices see use in domestic alarms, portable analyzers, HVAC systems, combustion monitors, and blood analyzers for people undergoing anesthesia.

Technology progress is yielding new types of sensors and a dynamic business environment for companies that supply and use sensors. New materials, algorithms, manufacturing methods, and principles of operation are enabling new capabilities and business models. Current business-development concepts for driverless vehicles, robots, big data, smart cities, green buildings, and virtual and augmented realities depend on expected advances in sensor technologies. As walk-through checkout lanes emerge in advanced retail stores, researchers and developers are working toward walk-through security lanes in airports. Other advanced developments include AI-enabled sensors that promise to automate medical diagnostic procedures and analysis of microscope slides, quantum sensors that could enable navigation without satellite connections, and printable sensors that rely on conductive-polymer inks. In addition, business and society are undergoing substantial changes on account of sensor-related developments. For example, proposed advances in renewable-energy sources, distributed generation, and energy conservation depend on continuing progress in sensor technology and commercialization. Progress in sensor technology also has a dark side. Risks include rapid obsolescence, abuses of big data, and extensive surveillance for purposes other than public safety.