By the end of 2019, there were an estimated 4.8 billion connected devices in the commercial, industrial and automotive markets, according to research by Gartner. By the end of 2020, there will be a billion more.
Such is the scale of the take up of sensors – the key components of the Internet of Things which are revolutionising our lives. In our homes, appliances, thermostats and even lightbulbs are being connected to the internet to bring us new services and support. Our cars – in particular self-driving cars – should soon be able to navigate using alerts from sensors in road signs, traffic lights and other vehicles. Sensors fitted inside tyres are also making new services possible. Meanwhile, factory production processes are being revised in line with the streams of data coming from connected machinery.
The sensors themselves are tiny electronic devices – some just a few millimetres across – designed to detect changes in the surrounding environment and trigger an electrical signal. They might monitor temperature, moisture, light, movement or any number of other elements. Sensors detect when you rotate your phone from portrait to landscape, for example, and reorient the display accordingly.
Such is their potential that experts have been imagining new possibilities for how sensors can be used to help us – and there are examples from a surprisingly wide range of fields:
Detecting forest fires
By the time a forest fire is detected it has usually already spread, often causing significant damage. In northern Spain sensors are being deployed to provide early detection in more than 200 hectares of forest. They can detect temperature, humidity and smoke and relay this information wirelessly to a monitoring centre. At the first sign of fire, emergency services can be deployed.
Helping rugby referees
Rugby fans are known to disagree over whether a ball has been passed forward, which is against the rules of the game. Now a company called Sportable says its sensor in a rugby ball can warn the referee if such an infringement happens. The ball can also collect stats to enhance the fan experience, such as tracking how fast a player runs with it or identifying the longest pass.
Understanding the human body
Soon, the Internet of Things will be inside us, thanks to pioneering research. Scientists are only just beginning to explore the possibilities, including sensors that can be swallowed to analyse stomach gases. These could replace invasive colonoscopies and endoscopies, making it quicker and easier to diagnose diseases such as colon cancer. Soon, some types of pills could contain sensors to inform clinicians when patients take their medication.
Getting the most from your tyres on the race track
Racing cars have long been packed with sensors, providing the detailed data that teams use to shape their race strategy. In 2019, Pirelli launched the equivalent for amateurs. Track Adrenaline is a smartphone app that reads GPS data from a box in the car and monitors tyre status using sensors in Pirelli's P Zero Trofeo R tyres. Now weekend racers will know when their tyres are warmed-up for a flying lap.
Protecting endangered rhinos
Critically endangered black rhinos are at risk from poachers, so wildlife parks across Africa have turned to sensors to protect them. Tagging rhinos keeps track of them, but tagging other animals could help too. Prey animals, such as zebras and impalas, are known to react in different ways depending on the type of threat they encounter – whether they sense a lion or a human, for example. A project in South Africa's Welgevonden Game Reserve between African telecommunications provider MTN, IBM and the Netherlands' Wageningen University is looking at how tagging these prey animals could provide an early-warning system that could help protect the rhinos.
Conserving fragile artworks
Too much light can do irreversible damage to works of art, so museums control lighting and rotate displays to help conserve them. The Huesca Museum in Spain is using light sensors to accurately measure exposure. Real-time monitoring considers lighting changes at different times of day, or in different seasons, to help conservators make the best decisions for each work.