Star Trek-like technology: Sensors that see through walls - Embedded.com

Star Trek-like technology: Sensors that see through walls

It can be funny how things work out sometimes. For example, I'd only just posted this column on new episodes of Star Trek (The Original Series) when I heard from Alf-Egil Bogen, whose company is creating Star Trek -like sensor technology that can see through walls like Spock's tricorder.


Alf-Egil Bogen.

Have you ever noticed how some people seem to keep on popping up in the most interesting places doing the most interesting things? Well, Alf is one of their number. While still a student, Alf and his friend Vegard Wollan conceived the architecture of what was to become the Atmel AVR processor.

The next I heard, Alf was chief marketing officer at Energy Micro, where he stayed until it was acquired by Silicon Labs in 2013. I now discover that Alf has resurfaced as the CEO of Novelda, which specializes in nanoscale wireless low-power technology for ultra-high-resolution impulse radar.

The most interesting area of Novelda's offerings to me is its XeThru Technology. This is based on the use of ultra-wideband (UWB) ultra-low-energy RF pulses to create sensors that can detect tiny motions from a distance and/or through walls.

When I say ultra-low-energy, if you were to use a spectrum analyzer, you would discover that this technology's RF transmissions fall below the noise floor in the environment — the sensors integrate over multiple pulses to extract useful information out of what appears to be noise.

In the not-so distant past, this type of technology would have required a wheelbarrow to move it around and a truck battery to power it; now you can fit it in a battery-powered handheld unit. At the heart of the system is the X2 SoC (system-on-chip). The folks at Novelda will sell these SoCs to select customers who have the required level of expertise, but for us mere mortals they offer XeThru modules, such as the X2M200 Respiration Monitor and the X2M300 Presence detector.


XeThru module with X2 chip in the middle and antenna built into the board.

So, what might one use these modules for? Well, how about a baby monitor that can detect whether or not the infant is breathing through sheets and blankets and duvets. We're talking about motions so tiny that you can’t even see them with the naked eye. You could create such a product that monitored breathing frequency and breathing patterns and issued an alarm if anything was wrong; buzzing an alert to your new Apple Watch, for example. In fact, there are all sorts of health and wellness applications that would benefit from this technology.

Here's another usage scenario. Have you ever entered a room in which a passive infrared (PIR) detector is used to turn on the lights? Have you ever sat in such a room when the lights went off again and you had to jump up and down and wave your arms around to convince the detector that someone was still in the room? Well, now imagine a detector that could sense your breathing and use this to activate the lights and keep them on. How about having one such detector outside the room that works out the fact you are approaching and activates the lights before you even enter the room, with a second detector inside the room keeping track of how many people are currently present?

Even better, how about mounting these detectors inside the walls for aesthetic reasons, thereby leaving a completely smooth and featureless surface (there are additional advantages with regard to having such sensors hidden and tamper-proof).


XeThru module mounted behind a wall.

Yes, obviously we can see the XeThru module in the picture above. Let's all just pretend that we're looking through the wall to see the module within. If we didn't show the module here, then all we'd have would be a picture of a man standing in front of a wall (LOL).

The end result is that XeThru modules offer the ability to see through walls and to detect motion, and to use these capabilities to determine presence, speed, and proximity. XeThru sensors are of interest for all sorts of applications, from embedded systems to robotics to things we haven’t even thought of yet, all of which brings us to the XeThru Inspiration Kit.


The XeThru Inspiration Kit.

This little beauty includes a complete module in product casing, an X2M1000 evaluation module, a USB communications board (and USB cable), and a programmer unit. The kit comes pre-programmed for tasks like respiration monitoring, baby monitoring, and presence detection, plus it comes equipped with the XeThru Explorer evaluation software. Hmm, maybe I could add one of these sensors to my Capriciously Cunning Chronograph. How about you — can you think of any interesting applications for this type of sensor technology?

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