PNI Sensor Corp. Using Sensors as The Key to IoT & Big Data


The Internet of Things could well be called the Internet of Sensors. After all, it is the sensors that add the information capture and reporting functionality to the “Things,” whether they be simple items such as light bulbs or complex machines.

We recently spoke about the future of sensors with Becky Oh, CEO, and Robin Stoecker, Director of Marketing, of PNI Sensor Corporation, a long-time leader in the sensor field. The company is an unusual one for this Age of Hype, in that it has been in business successfully for 30 years without raising outside financing.

(Sensors are electronic devices that can detect physical stimuli (e.g., heat, pressure, magnetism, light, sound, etc.) in their environment and can respond to them (e.g., by transmitting a signal, recording data, etc.)

Years of Experience and Now an Exploding Market

Oh states that the sensor world “really took off with the advent of iPhone.” So this is an area that, in terms of technological development, is still in an early stage and likely to see many advances.

PNI defines its expertise as including the “magnetic sensor & sensor fusion, location, and motion tracking areas.” In addition to their accuracy, they claim their sensors excel in low power consumption, ability to withstand a very wide temperature range and other features.

The company’s early history involved a good deal of business with the military. Over time, they developed an increasing number of use cases for several vertical commercial markets, including, automotive, consumer electronics and robotics. They list as customers the likes of Sony, Nintendo, GM, Ford, iRobot (robotic vacuum cleaners), Samsung and others. While they do not actively solicit military business today, Oh states it still is about 30% of their revenue.

Oh emphasizes that their business extends well beyond the physical sensors themselves. In addition, they develop a range of algorithms, for individual sensors and also for the fusion of multiple sensors that must interact in areas such as mobile devices and IoT. They also offer various sensor modules and systems.

Oh describes the process in terms of “driving the application is the key.” The sensors provide measurements; this information is used in an algorithm and put into firmware, which is then placed on a processor. The entire process must be devoted to needs of the use case or application.

Enter The IoT and Parking Solution

With the IoT looming as a sensor gold mine, it is hardly surprising that in early 2017 PNI announced its entry into the field with a sensor-based parking solution for monitoring public and private, on-street and off-street parking lots.

We’ve previously written about the factors driving the development of sensor-based, and other, parking solutions (“Parking Apps Are BIG Business” MCE, 9/19/16). As we wrote, “While looking for a parking space in a crowded city is universally annoying, there have been a number of studies that document that it is also wasteful and costly.”

PNI’s solution, PlacePod, is embodied in a “smart” sensor module that can be embedded in the ground or attached to a structure above ground. PlacePod includes PNI’s RM3100 geomagnetic sensor, which the company claims is the “highest performance magnetic sensor in its class.”

In order to do the parking sensor system, Oh explains that they decided “to build an end-to-end solution.” This includes multi-node algorithms, some of the processing for which gets done in the cloud. Oh states that doing “100% of processing at the edge is not enough,” there are situations that require backup in the cloud.

The PlacePod device was designed with the idea of installation at every parking spot in a lot. However, there are use cases in which this might not be needed. Stoecker cites as an example a situation where the lot owner wants to monitor the Disabled Parking spots. She adds that in other cases, the city or other authority might just want to monitor the amount of traffic entering a location. They also cite a situation where a city in Canada wanted to monitor traffic at a four-way intersection.

Reviewers have praised the PlacePod, for example, for its ultra-low power consumption, its ability to be “always-on” (as opposed to other sensor systems that go into “sleep mode” to preserve power) and stability over a wide range of temperature. PNI adds that its sensor is 30 times more sensitive than other magnetic sensors and can filter out electromagnetic interference from a variety of sources, such as nearby overhead power lines.

IoT Marketing Strategy – For PlacePod

The PlacePod was announced in early 2017. Regarding marketing strategy, PNI is obviously in the IoT space for the long haul. Both Oh and Stoecker commented on the alliances they have formed. These include their entry into the LoRa Alliance. In May, PNI also announced an alliance with LoRaWAN provider, Sennet, to offer PlacePod service. PNI also has a version of PlacePod for use over Sigfox, one of the other leading LPWAN (low power wider area network) providers.

Currently, the company has announced one identified customer, the City of Montreal which has installed PlacePod to monitor on-street parking spaces in its business district. They also mention a city in California’s Central Valley that has used PlacePods to monitor violations in downtown short-term parking spaces.

Oh notes that the IoT is such a new phenomenon that early entrants tend to want to cooperate with each other. However, some may prove to be competitors in the longer run.

A Family of Other Products and Uses

PNI has a long history of developing sensor products for numerous markets and applications. These include:

Navigation: Including a family of products; TRAX AHRS (attitude and heading reference modules) used in unmanned vehicles and other apps, TargetPoint DMC compass module used in military rangefinders, SeaTRAX compass module used in oceanic seismic exploration, and others.

Sensor Fusion: Products include; SENtral sensor fusion coprocessor a hub that can integrate data from an array of sensors in mobile devices, and automotive apps, SENtral-A (and A2) hubs that supports sensors in Android devices.

Virtual Reality: SpacePoint VR motion tracking system for virtual reality gaming headsets, SpacePoint CR for game controllers.

Future Developments

With sensor usage in a period of massive uptake, the technology can be expected to move ahead on several fronts. Oh points to the need for tools that would automate some of the process by which sensors could be selected for a given type of application and the firmware could be developed and fit to processors.

She believes that wireless charging of sensors will be helpful at some point in the future. But she also states that other approaches might be used, and mentions the possibility of solar panels.

Regarding the question of whether they might go further into developing software to meet the challenge of Big Data and analytics, she notes that it is largely an issue of what areas will offer an economic payback.

She also believes that Neuromorphic Computing at the sensor can be useful in the future. She cites power management as one area and the ability to do more analytics at the edge as another possible benefit. (Neuromorphic computing is classically defined as using very-large-scale integration (VLSI) systems with analog circuits to mimic neuro-biological effects present in the nervous system.)

Our Take

We believe the Age of Sensors is obviously upon us. PNI occupies a significant position today and will have to continue to move quickly to anticipate improvements not only in sensor technology, but also in software and related processes for development of sensors.

Oh told us that the company is well geared to this challenge, with its intense focus on sensor development. She reported that its staff is about 70% engineers. While they have accumulated a notable patent portfolio, she emphasized that a great deal of their value exists in proprietary knowledge and knowhow, which they tend to rely on more heavily today.

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