May 24, 2024

Researchers Develop a Versatile Sensor Array Inspired by the Human Auditory System

A team of researchers from The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) has developed a sensor array design technology that takes inspiration from the human auditory system. This innovative approach, which mimics the ability of the human ear to distinguish sounds through tonotopy, has the potential to revolutionize the application of sensor arrays in various fields including robotics, aviation, healthcare, and industrial machinery.

The findings of the HKUST team, in collaboration with the City University of Hong Kong, were recently published in the journal Science Advances. The research article, titled “One-wire reconfigurable and damage-tolerant sensor matrix inspired by the auditory tonotopy,” was authored by Dr. Long Zhihe and Mr. Lin Weikang.

Traditional sensor arrays face several challenges including complex wiring, limited reconfigurability, and low damage resistance. However, the design developed by the HKUST team, led by Associate Professor Yang Zhengbao from the Department of Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering, overcomes these challenges by assigning a unique frequency to each sensor unit. The sensor unit signal is then used to modulate the amplitude of the frequency signal, similar to the processing of distinct frequencies by hair cells in the human cochlea. These amplitude-modulated signals of different frequencies are combined onto a single conductor, and a Fast Fourier Transform algorithm is used to decipher the individual signals. This design significantly reduces the number of output wires required, eliminating the need for the conventional row-column setup and improving functionality.

One of the key advantages of this method is that the decoding system can process information from all sensor units simultaneously, which is in stark contrast to the existing implementation of time-division multiplexing for sensor array decoding. Furthermore, the research team has integrated a redundancy design in the sensor connection network to ensure continuous operation, even when parts of the array’s connection network are damaged. This redundancy is inspired by the multiple synaptic connections between hair cells in the internal ear and neurons, providing a backup in case one pathway fails.

The redundant design not only enhances the system’s damage tolerance but also enables greater reconfigurability, making it ideal for use in rapidly changing environments such as responsive robotics or adaptable wearable devices. Additionally, the Lego-style modular design of the sensor array could lead to cost savings in maintenance, as it is easier to repair than traditional multi-wire sensor arrays.

The proposed sensor array technology has a wide range of potential applications. Its flexibility and robustness make it suitable for integration into curved surfaces and operation in harsh environments. It can adapt to the shape and multimodal sensing requirements of the surface while providing real-time data. However, there are limitations to this sensor array design. The number of sensor units in the array is constrained by the operational bandwidth of the circuits, and miniaturization is limited by the size of off-the-shelf electronic components required for each sensor unit.

Looking ahead, the HKUST team aims to further simplify the design of the sensor array and explore commercial partnerships to bring this technology to the market. This innovative sensor array has the potential to revolutionize various industries by providing a versatile, reconfigurable, and damage-tolerant solution for sensor integration.

1. Source: Coherent Market Insights, Public sources, Desk research
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