Monday, April 7, 2014

That Wonderful Accelerometer


"Do you wish you had an accelerometer? You probably already do..."

Many years ago, I was hired by a company to do something I had never done before. I was to be in charge of the procurement for all high tech and development programs. This was quite a change from what I had been doing for the past fifteen years, so I looked forward to the challenge.

The company was working on four or five different development programs. One of the programs was to build a "proof of concept" robotic hand. Once this was accomplished, then an arm, and so on. The company had three vendors in this very front end business - one was in San Diego, one in Salt Lake City and the other was Stanford University. The customer was DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). Some very, very bright people worked on this project.

To prove to the customer the robotic hand was "fit for purpose", and could pass the qualification test, the company had to show the hand could alternate between lifting fifty pounds without dropping it, and then picking up an egg without breaking it. As a newcomer to this type of business, I felt like Alice in Wonderland. This was "Gee Wiz" stuff to me.

The secret to this hand being able to pick up either a fifty pound weight or an egg, was a small chip called an accelerometer. For example, if the egg would start to slip through the robotic hand, sensors would instantly detect the motion and then apply a minute amount of additional squeeze. The trick was to have enough squeeze, without too much squeeze, thereby not breaking the egg when it was picked up. It was fascinating stuff for sure.

DARPA ran out of money, and the program got cancelled. Too bad. I would have liked to have seen where it led.

Today, accelerometers are still around. You might have one. Where? In your smart phone or tablet. The purpose of these small yet powerful chips in your phone are to adjust the landscape of your screen. Ever wonder if you turn your phone 90 or 180 degrees why the information on the screen stays straight up? It is due to an accelerometer in your device. Very small, very innocuous, very powerful. 

Even though the concept of the piezoelectric accelerometer has been around for decades, it is now small and cheap enough to be used in common, ordinary applications. And to me, that is what makes these chips so wonderful.  

No comments:

Post a Comment