Extra sensory perceptions

Demand is growing for better measurement and instrumentation, yet sensors are often too expensive and returns on investment are difficult to quantify. Sensor innovation is also hindered by complexities in the supplier-user network and the growing trend to

These trends are creating a widening gap in technology between the kind of sensors required by the market and those which any single sensor manufacturer can supply.

‘A collective approach between industry and end users is now essential,’ says David Strachan, head of the measurement technology group at Shell Research.

Strachan is also a member of an industry and environmental working group launched last week by sensor industry body Sira, one of three consortia set up to try to exploit new technology in sensors.

The project has come to life as part of the Government’s Technology Foresight initiative, which aims to get expert opinions on what technology will be required within every sector of economic and social activity over the next 20 years or so. Sensors were judged as crucial to almost every sector under discussion. The aim is to identify common needs, look at existing sensor technology and implement it in a range of intelligent instruments.

Representatives from industry and academia, including BG Technology, ICI, Shell Research, National Power, Brunel University and sensor makers Paar Scientific and VG Microtech, met to draw up guidelines for projects in three key areas: industry and the environment, security and surveillance, and earth observation (see box).

Sira will co-ordinate three UK consortia with sensor development expertise in these areas.

Richard Brook, chief executive of Sira, says this collaboration between organisations such as his, industry and academia will offer the opportunity ‘to reduce development costs in the long term’. He adds: ‘This is not just a research initiative, but is aimed to help the introduction of marketable products.’

Sira plans to offer a forum for networking and fund raising from sources including the EC, government, regional initiatives, research councils and industry.

It also announced a blueprint for action, which will be launched next month. This will set up a library of new technology opportunities and bring in programmes to help grasp business opportunities, working closely with the Office of Science and Technology and drawing on other Foresight programmes.

The second round of Foresight, to start next April, will focus on the role of sensor technology in crime control, shaping future cities and developing sustainable environments.

There will also be a demand for sensor technology to support the EU Fifth Framework Programme, which starts next summer. This will address environmental issues such as sustaining water quality, dealing with global climate change and developing cleaner energy systems.

Strachan says there is a need for more intelligent sensors. ‘They must be be able to characterise the emissions of chemical plants and identify areas for improvement, not just to record data.’

He sees expense as a big barrier to the effective monitoring of waste emissions: ‘A small chemical plant can’t justify the huge capital investment of a major DCS (distributed control system) to monitor emissions. So there are great opportunities for cheaper and simpler line-of-sight sensor systems which could monitor emissions from chemical plants and indicate the location of hot spots.’

There is a struggle to get instrumentation products to market. ‘The issue of sensing emissions is rather low down the value chain for most refinery operators,’ says Strachan. ‘People want systems which can be easily integrated into a plant, but that can be difficult. So consortia involving suppliers, users and experts can offer new solutions.’

Sira’s action plan

Industry and environment

A consortia including Sira will work to develop lower-cost sensors and encourage the use of cleaner, sustainable industrial processes. Intelligent sensors will be vital for monitoring emissions, aiding process and plant control and ensuring compliance with environmental regulations.

Priorities: to set up intelligence groups on the impact of environmental regulations; assess the opportunities for small and medium-sized businesses and partnerships; create a network to analyse potential in the global environmental industry; create flexible training modules; analyse the business and life-cycle effectiveness of new systems; provide market analysis to identify export opportunities; and set up a partner brokerage.

A pilot study will examine good practice in national measurement standards, and an EU Fifth Framework project will exploit the need for a low-cost, mass-market sensor to measure toxicity and environmental regulation enforcement.

Security and surveillance

A Sira programme will work with the Royal Mail, Wandsworth Borough Council and the Metropolitan Police to develop sensors for criminal detection and to make towns safer.

Priorities: more intelligent CCTV monitoring systems to differentiate between high-spirited and violent behaviour; better systems to help extract relevant evidence from CCTV videotape; to create a demonstration unit for intelligent surveillance.

The earth observation team

Consortia includes Sira, British Maritime Technology, Lloyd’s Register and Yorkshire Water.