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Sensing the future

Published April 15, 2019

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The smoke alarm goes off as your dinner smolders on your stove. You stroll through the automatic doors of a grocery store. A nurse takes your temperature. Your car lights turn on after the Sun goes down. Have you, too, started to take sensors for granted in everyday life?

Put simply, sensors are pieces of hardware that sense some aspect of their surroundings. They measure the physical environment around them and, depending on their function, record and react to that measurement.

In your day-to-day routine, most sensors probably go unnoticed. But look around you; there’s a light sensor in your computer mouse, a touch sensor in your laptop’s touch pad, and probably a bunch of motion sensors in the nearest public bathroom (automatic sinks, soap and paper towel dispensers, hand dryers, and even toilets all use one).

Some sensors you might be familiar with are connected to your gaming system at home. The Nintendo® Wii is controlled via a sensor bar next to your TV and a handheld remote control (a Wii Remote, also known as a Wiimote). What you might not know is that the Wiimote does the sensing, not the sensor bar. The Wiimote uses two basic sensors: an accelerometer, which calculates velocity, and a basic camera, which senses the infrared (IR) lights set inside the sensor bar (IGN). The sensor bar acts like a beacon so the Wiimote can relay its position to the game software. For example, if you’re playing digital tennis, you swing the Wiimote, the accelerometer determines how fast your swing is, the Wiimote’s sensor compares the position of your swing to the IR lights, the velocity and position is relayed to the game, and your on-screen character hits the animated tennis ball per your movement all at once.

And a more advanced version of this setup can be found in the Xbox Kinect, which incorporates your body, movements, and voice as controllers for the game (HowStuffWorks). The Kinect implements a series of cameras and depth sensors to create a 3-D view of your body as well as an array of microphones to isolate players’ voices from ambient noise. Gaming consoles have come a long way since the Atari!

When you think of sensors, you might envision security measures. Smoke alarms often use light sensors to detect a disturbance in the air; smoke will shift light particles inside the device, causing the alarm to go off. The security system at your home or workplace probably involves motion detectors, circuits attached to windows and doors, or surveillance cameras. A system like this can be programmed to alert you, the security company, and the authorities when it detects an intruder. That being said, many jobs exist in this field to make it all work together. Someone develops the sensors, someone installs them, someone works at the security company regulating notifications, and someone else responds to a notification’s point of origin.

Pitsco Education is developing brand-new curriculum called Career Explorations Through TETRIX® Robotics: Safety and Security, which is designed to teach students about the real-world applications of sensors. This curriculum especially focuses on the field of safety and security and introduces students to a variety of actual careers, including military and investigator positions, electromechanical specialists, security systems installers, and even drone photographers – positions that all implement sensors every day.

The Safety and Security curriculum includes three activities in which students affix light, sound, PIR motion, ultrasonic, and line finder sensors on a built TETRIX robot to create variations of a security guard.

Pitsco Robotics Curriculum Specialist Aaron Locke explains, “Besides learning about careers related to sensors in the security industry and exploring the use of these new sensors on their TETRIX robot, each activity intentionally focuses on building 21st-century skills such as the 4Cs – communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity.” So, students not only learn about the sensors themselves and how to code them, but they also collaborate in teams to program a sentry robot from scratch. At the end, they are posed with a real-world, cumulative challenge: make the most efficient sentry robot for a parking garage. How can the robot signal an intruder alert using an LCD screen and the sensors on hand?

Keep in mind that these are today’s sensors – who knows what will be considered the norm tomorrow? Knightscope, a California-based security company, has developed autonomous robots that have already stopped several crimes in 15 states. These self-driving bots are currently stationed in malls, hospitals, parking lots, and banks, and a multi-terrain machine is under development to one day prevent crime in even more difficult environments.

We’re living in a world where science fiction is becoming reality, and current students are on the brink of that development. How will the sensors of today inspire tomorrow’s everyday life?

“Our Pitsco STEM lab provides real-world, hands-on experience that enables students the opportunities to think critically, problem solve, collaborate, and be responsible for their success, while learning new skills.”

– Jennifer Rivenbark, CTE teacher, Wallace Elementary School, Wallace, North Carolina

We enable young learners to develop the mind-set, skill set, and tool set needed for future success.

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