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Pushing the performance envelope with a custom environmental sensor

Environmental sensing is growing in importance with pressures on our natural world from multiple sources. Increasingly, organisations are looking for custom sensing solutions to meet their particular focus or to accommodate bespoke sensors developed in collaboration with research organisations. 

A wide range of Commercial-Off-The-Shelf (COTS) environmental sensors are available on the market, but there are two main limitations with COTS sensors.

Multi-parameter measurement

Firstly, COTS sensors are usually optimised for a few key parameters. For example, a soil monitor might monitor moisture, salinity, and temperature, but there are many other parameters and sensor types. For example, your application may call for a pH or measuring organic matter content.

Simple soil monitoring sensors commonly just use electrodes for measuring conductivity, potential, dielectric permittivity and other electrical properties of the soil. However, a wide range of other types of sensors can be integrated, including a tensiometer, heat flux plate, psychrometer, lysimeter, or gypsum block, to name a few. 

As a result, comprehensive environmental monitoring using a COTS approach may end up having several separate sensors, from different companies, with different communication protocols, making integration of results a cumbersome process.

Performance characteristics

The second issue concerns the limits of COTS sensors, including their sensitivity, accuracy, resolution, precision, linearity, range, repeatability, stability, selectivity and environmental limits. While there is a COTS sensor for just about anything, they do not generally have a high performance around these characteristics. 

The trend in environmental sensing is to push the boundaries of sensor performance. There is a growing recognition of the complexity and inter-relatedness of a range of parameters. Subtle changes and interactions matter. Some changes occur over long periods, so the changes are small but incredibly important for understanding what is happening.

Universities understand this trend very well. That is why they are constantly developing new sensors that push the boundaries. For example, a new generation of quantum sensors is being developed with unprecedented sensitivity, thousands to millions of times more sensitive than COTS sensors available today. In the soil example above, a quantum sensor can detect subtle changes in the magnetic signature of soil, free from interference from powerlines, different soil compositions, and more. 

One only has to look at the research being conducted by the Soil Cooperative Research Centre at the University of Newcastle and its program on soil performance metrics to understand that soil sensor technology will rapidly evolve over coming years.

Soil is just one tiny fraction of the scope of environmental sensing. The same logic outlined above applies to every other environmental field, including, for example:

  • Natural environment (monitoring flora, fauna and resources such as water, including invasive species, illegal dumping and more)

  • Disaster management (fire and flood detection/prediction and response, including vegetation/dryness monitoring, road flooding, damage assessment and more)

  • Smart cities (traffic, waste, security, air monitoring and management)

  • Smart buildings (indoor climate quality and control, energy efficiency)

  • Agriculture (monitoring soil, crops and pests, weather, water, irrigation)

  • Site management (Noise, dust, vibration, run-off, spills, contamination, heat stress and more)

The bottom line is that many organisations will need to develop custom environmental sensors to fulfil their mission to better understand the environment and manage activities affecting it, or to remain competitive in a global environment where many thousands of organisations and research institutions are racing to commercialise the next generation of technology. 

To support this challenge, Genesys is launching an Environmental Sensing Platform that allows organisations to rapidly develop a custom environmental sensor that meets their exact requirements, as follows:

  • For research institutions: This solution allows researchers to rapidly develop a prototype of their sensing technology, impressively and professionally, that will attract investors and further funding.

  • For large organisations: This solution allows organisations such as government agencies or large companies in mining and construction with significant environmental monitoring and reporting obligations to develop an in-house custom sensing capability, with no strings attached, such as ongoing subscriptions or the need to integrate multiple third-party software platforms into backend systems.

  • For environmental sensing technology: This solution enables companies offering existing sensing technologies or related services to rapidly develop a next-generation technology, providing unique features that deliver that crucial competitive edge. The benefit of outsourcing product design is primarily to save costs, but can also support a constrained in-house team. 

  • For related environmental service providers: This solution enables providers of environmental services, such as data analytics, to add value to what they offer through the integration of a proprietary sensing technology.

Genesys offers a comprehensive product development service, including manufacturing management if required. The platform consists of a range of modules covering virtually every common environmental sensing technology requirement.

The product development process consists of defining the requirements for the custom application, including:

  • Sensors

  • Location engine

  • Communication options

  • Enclosure and attachment options

A rapid-prototyping process delivers a device with a base board and a custom sensor board. The baseboard provides most features common to all environmental sensing applications and hosts the microcontroller that enables your business logic. A custom sensor board is developed with any specific sensing, location or communication options required for your particular application.

After initial field trials and finalisation of the requirements, an optimised single board solution is developed, although it is possible to go straight to this solution if there is a high degree of confidence in the requirements from the outset. 

In developing your custom environmental sensor, there are many technical considerations and trade-offs to take into account including: 

  • Battery life

  • Recharging options

  • Communication options and combinations

  • Operational Sensors that enable deployment and basic functions

  • Monitoring Sensors that read the environmental parameters

  • Location engine options and combinations 

  • Specific requirements such as flight mode and tamper-proofing

  • Integration with other separate asset management technologies such as barcoding and RFID

In addition, there are a range of commercial considerations, such as unit costs, installation, maintenance, regulatory compliance, and more, that are not challenging but need to be considered. 

For more information Contact Genesys for a free consultation to better understand how to develop your custom environmental sensing and monitoring solution.


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