Shrinking components in the MEMS world has its complications. An accelerometer is just a mass on a spring that can detect motion. The more mass you have, the more motion. "The smaller we make our devices, the better our technology has to be to detect that internal motion," said Chong.
Although some degree of programming of an ASIC is possible, it is hardwired to do something specific, Chong said. In contrast, an ARM microprocessor is a general purpose integrated circuit used to execute software instructions. Because an ASIC's role is very narrowly focused, it's more efficient, meaning it can be smaller use less power and run faster than a microprocessor.
Because each has its benefits, some sensors are designed with an ARM processor, an ASIC and a MEMS, to add flexibility and programmability to the microprocessor while retaining the efficiency of the ASIC.
The smartphone, which has driven demand for MEMS sensors, acts as an application platform for sensing devices. For instance, all a pedometer maker needs is an accelerometer, battery and a Bluetooth radio to communicate with the smartphone. The phone allows manufacturers to concentrate on the function they want to deliver, without having to worry about displays and extra buttons, said Chong.
That is an approach taken by Zepp Labs, for instance. It uses accelerometers and gyroscope sensors for baseball, tennis and golf equipment that can record multiple actions, such as speed of swing. That information is sent via Bluetooth to a smartphone application.
The growth of MEMS technology tracks with Internet of Things spending. IDC estimates that the worldwide Internet of Things market will grow from $5.4 trillion in 2013 to $7.3 trillion by 2017, or 7.9% a year. Any vendor that makes a device that can be automated with minimal human intervention has a play in that market, said Scott Tiazkun, an analyst at IDC.
The fastest growing Internet of Things market, at 11.3% a year through 2017, is the public sector, according to IDC.
The Internet of Things business case for municipal managers is often clear. For instance, the city of Glendale, Ariz., put in sensor-enabled street lighting with sensors that connect to the cellular network. When a light fails, the city is notified. Consequently, only a tiny percentage of its nearly 10,000 street lights are out at any given time.
Previously, the city relied on calls from residents and inspections by city workers to determine lighting needs. With the light monitoring network, "the accountability is much better and that's what I think the public is demanding from government services," said Michael Sills-Trausch, who manages the city's street lighting program.
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