Kelly McSweeney

Apr 19th 2021

The Incredible Shrinking Sensors and Their Massive Growth


Sensors are usually embedded or hidden, so it’s easy to take them for granted, but they are sophisticated devices that deserve a second look. The technology behind them has dramatically improved in the last couple decades and research and development continues to expand future capabilities.

While the basic sensor has existed in various forms since the late 1800s, this century’s version is smaller, more precise and more reliable. The latest versions are also multifunctional. Just like our smartphones are capable of doing much more than phone calls, a modern sensor can also multitask.

Ed Eberl, Chief Technologist at Northrop Grumman’s Amherst Systems unit explains, “At one instant a sensor could be acting as a communications link — transferring data back and forth — and then an instant later it could be acting like a radar tracking a target, and another instant later it can be jamming something, trying to detect someone else’s communications.”

Sensors Are Everywhere

With the Internet of Things, it might seem like sensors are already everywhere (from your coffee maker to your watch), but this is just the beginning. The optical sensing market is projected to grow to $3.46 billion by 2023 (three times greater than in 2016).

Sensors are essential for consumer electronics such as wearable fitness trackers, virtual reality, smartphones and gadgets that haven’t been invented yet. They are also increasingly used for industrial applications, such as allowing factories to automate manufacturing and shipping goods.

There is massive potential in the medical field, since they can be used to provide doctors with detailed information about patients’ health in real time. Sensors are components in the latest medical devices but they can also be embedded directly into the body to track heart rate, muscle movement and biomarkers.

Many recent advancements in sensor technology were initiated by military projects. The Distributed Aperture System (DAS) sensor, for example, can give pilots the benefits of collision avoidance, weather tracking, night vision, ground mapping and early warnings of any incoming missile threats.

While this type of high-tech situational awareness was originally meant for the military, similar technology is now being used by automakers to improve safety features and even create self-driving vehicles. Today’s vehicles can already detect cars passing in blind spots and warn drivers if they drift into the wrong lane. Smart pressure sensors are a critical component to how airbags function in smart cars. Some automakers, such as Tesla, even offer autopilot mode for highway driving. No doubt, tomorrow’s fully autonomous cars will be loaded with multifunction sensors.

Sensor Technology Improved

Modern challenges — whether in military or civilian settings — demand high-tech goods that require a sensor. Fortunately, two major factors have driven recent improvements in sensor technology. Researchers have greatly improved signal conversion, where you take a microwave signal and convert it into a digital format. The accuracy with which the latest devices can measure a radio frequency signal is constantly increasing because engineers keep developing faster and faster data converters. In addition to these more precise measurements, a second aspect has continued to improve at the same time: processing power. So now, better measurements are taken and they can be processed quickly on site or even in-flight.

In the military, for example, there used to be intelligence platforms that would go out into the field and collect signals. This data would be recorded and sent back to an analysis center at a different ground location. Now, with the advancements in computing power and higher sampling rates, more information can be extracted in real time and analysis can be done right from the fighter jets. As sensors become more precise, the artifacts which hold them are becoming smaller, reducing the weight of the airframe.

Another advancement in sensor technology is how multifunction sensor arrays are evolving. Typically, a set of sensors is assigned to work together to perform a task. A multifunction array is a collection of many smaller sensors, and each of these individual sensors can be independently assigned a specific task or function. The parameters of individual sensors can also be controlled to “point” the array in a desired direction. Think of a multifunction array as an LED light fixture. One LED bulb by itself may not be bright enough, but several of them can illuminate an entire area. Sensors work similarly. One of them may not be able to detect a target or signal, but a group of them working in unison provides increased sensitivity to perform a task.

Because sensors play such an integral role in a variety devices and applications, advancements in their form and function are not only expected, but inevitable.

Anticipating Future Capabilities

What will a sensor be able to do in the next few years? Anything is possible. Eberl and his colleagues have to anticipate future capabilities. His team provides simulation and testing so that the engineers who are developing new devices can work out any bugs.

One of these testing simulators — the Combat Electromagnetic Environment SIMulator (CEESIM) — provides RF simulation of multiple, simultaneous emitters so that engineers can see how their devices respond to the most complicated potential scenarios. The challenge is anticipating the many ways that a multifunction sensor will be used in the future.

For example, recent improvements allow for a large array of individual sensors to be subdivided into multiple groups of sensors, each performing a different task. These types of array can perform multiple tasks simultaneously. Think of your cell phone and the multiple things you can do from this one device — talk to a friend, while scrolling through an app to order dinner and have the big game streaming in the background — all at the same time. Similarly, CEESIM needs to be able to test multiple different functions at the same time.

“This is an exciting challenge for us,” Eberl says, “to have to simulate all the different types of signals and different types of utilization of that sensor in a very dynamic environment because we as a simulator don’t know what the sensor is going be doing from instant to instant.”

Check out opportunities to join Northrop Grumman’s effort to predict the future at our career page.