Scientists from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have developed a "smart brick" which can monitor a building's health and report its conditions wirelessly.
The work was performed by Chang Liu, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, and his graduate student Jon Engel at the university's Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology with fundings from the National Science Foundation.
"This innovation could change the face of the construction industry," said Chang Liu. "We are living with more and more smart electronics all around us, but we still live and work in fairly dumb buildings. By making our buildings smarter, we can improve both our comfort and safety."
The prototype has a thermistor, two-axis accelerometer, multiplexer, transmitter, antenna and battery hidden inside a brick. Built into a wall, the brick could monitor a building's temperature, vibration and movement. Such information could be vital to firefighters battling a blazing skyscraper, or to rescue workers ascertaining the soundness of an earthquake-damaged structure.
Here is a photograph of Chang Liu holding a smart brick (taken by Bill Wiegand).
[Because] the researchers are currently using off-the-shelf components in their smart bricks, there is "lots of room for making the sensor package smaller," Engel said. "Ultimately, we would like to fit everything onto one chip, and then put that chip on a piece of plastic, instead of silicon, to make it more robust."
Liu and Engel have already crafted such sensors by depositing metal films on flexible polymer substrates. Dubbed "smart skin" by its inventors, the sensor material can be wrapped around any surface of interest, such as a robotic finger.
They also think these devices could help monitoring nurseries, daycares and senior homes, and creating interactive "smart toys" that respond to the touch of a child.
Source: Jim Kloeppel, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, June 12, 2003
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