How remote sensing and sensor housing can push cheaper sensors into extreme environments

MSIG is pleased to share content from our valued partner, industry leading market research firm Lux Research.

by Tiffany Huang, Lux Research

There are multiple industries –like mining, oil and gas, transportation, and aerospace– that operate in harsh environments. These environments can include high (or low) temperature, high voltage, high shock and vibration, and even corrosive environments. To operate in these markets, sensors –whether it is for preventive maintenance, safety monitoring or other applications – typically have to be able to operate in these conditions. Companies in these spaces will source these sensors, like high end fiber optic based sensors, which allow for longer operation but come at a hefty price tag – these sensors cost thousands to tens of thousands of dollars per sensor.

Many of the companies looking for sensors in this space are looking at in a binary way; sensors have to be durable or they cannot be used. However, there are two new strategies that are emerging that looks to displace this. The first is looking into ruggedizing weaker sensors – adding a layer of durable packaging to ward off environmental factors– and the second being remote sensing and monitoring.

Improving Packaging:

  • There are companies that are beginning to improve sensor housing and packaging to make it more durable. Companies like Micro-Sensor, Jewell Instruments, and VectorNav, have all innovated in packaging technologies to improve the durability of cheaper sensors (like MEMS) to withstand the harsher conditions and decrease the cost to hundreds or low thousands of dollars. These companies improve housing through adding better steel or aluminum housing, with some companies innovating in welding techniques to improve the hermetic seal on the sensor. However, the improvement in durability may not be enough – for example a Micro-Sensor accelerometer improves the shock and vibration resistance compared to a housing-less MEMS accelerometer, but it operates only up to 80°C and resists a voltage of 30 VDC which is not good enough for conditions that require extreme environments in all conditions. There is still room for innovation in developing sensor packages that can withstand not just one but multiple harsh conditions.

Remote Sensing:

  • Another method is through the use of remote sensors – sensors that are not actually in the harsh environment for long periods of time and can sense them from afar. For example, in the train industry (which suffers from high voltage and physical shock), there is a need to sense the wear of different train conditions –like the wheels or the pantograph (which transmits the power to the train from a wire) – and train operators traditionally relied on internal train sensors to determine these properties or did not have these sensors available. This has changed in recent years as companies like Nordco, Pantoinspect, and even Siemens have all developed a remote monitoring system. Instead of installation on a train, these sensors are installed in the infrastructure (like rails and train tunnels), and can detect defects for preventive maintenance without being susceptible to the harsh environment of the train. This lowers cost, as cheaper sensors can be used, and not every train has to be installed with expensive sensors. Adjacent markets like mining and oil and gas can look for similar types of sensors that may be useful, like getting unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) installed with sensors that can fly overhead (or even inside) harsh conditions for a short period of time to deliver meaningful data.

Tiffany Huang is a Research Associate on the Sensors Intelligence team at Lux Research, which provides strategic advice and on-going intelligence for emerging technologies.