Sensors working overtime: Bosch’s big plans for the Internet of Things

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Bosch R+D
Tech Digest’s Chris Price visited Bosch’s recently opened Research and Development Facility near Stuttgart, Germany to see how the latest sensors are shaping the Internet of Things (iOT) revolution

Think Bosch and what comes to mind? Probably one of the company’s dishwashers or maybe its range of popular power tools.
But actually the German company, founded in 1886 by engineer and philanthropist Dr Robert Bosch, is a huge worldwide organisation with a turnover of nearly €50 billion, much of it derived from devices you never even see.

Take the humble smartphone, for example. Around three quarters of these devices across the world are fitted with one of Bosch’s tiny MEMS (micro-electro mechanical systems) accelerometer sensors.

Despite measuring just 2.5mm x 3mm, these sensors work by detecting the earth’s gravity and are responsible for functions such as flipping the mobile phone’s screen from portrait to landscape mode, or for the functions within the device’s pedometer to count the number of steps we take each day. Similarly these tiny sensors not much bigger than the end of a ballpoint pen are also used in fitness trackers, augmented reality glasses and other wearables.

Automotive sensors

Nor is it just inside consumer electronics devices where the clever little sensors are playing an important role. Nearly two thirds of Bosch’s business is based around the automotive industry, providing sensors primarily to car manufacturers for all the latest ESP (Electronic Safety Program) features. In vehicles, the MEMS sensors can identify potentially dangerous situations, such as the car suddenly braking or rolling over, and will help to keep the vehicle on the road or deploy its airbags.

Since the start of production in 1995, Bosch has manufactured an astonishing 6 billion of these tiny devices. However, this is just the beginning. With the Internet of Things (iOT) revolution, virtually every device we own will be connected to the internet. Statistics from Cisco show the number of internet connected devices has already exceeded the number of people on the planet and is expected to reach 25 billion items by the end of this year and 50 billion in 2020!

“In the future, nearly all everyday objects are likely to be equipped with sensors,” says Dr. Franz Lärmer, a Bosch sensor expert who in 2007 won European Inventor of the Year from the European Patent Office for his work on etching silicon which helped pave way for more compact and advanced sensors. “This is a revolutionary development that will allow almost every object to gather information about itself and its environment. As a result, the potential applications of these objects will increase tremendously.”

MEMS sensors coming off the production line. Since production began in 1995, Bosch has made 5 billion MEMS sensors. Currently 4 million of these sensors are produced each day.
MEMS sensors coming off the production line. Since
production began in 1995, Bosch has made 5 billion MEMS sensors. Currently 4 million of these sensors are manufactured each day.

Connected planet

One example is with fitness or medical trackers where several sensors can be combined to provide a complete profile about the user for diagnostics purposes. Using an atmospheric sensor it’s possible to detect what floor the user is on while data sensors attached to the skin monitor can be used to monitor heart rate and movement.

By combining this information from the sensors, it’s possible to detect changes in heart frequency when climbing the stairs and use this information for medical diagnostics. “Changes in how people move can be an early sign of dementia or postural defects,” explains Lärmer. “There is no end in sight to the wide range of possible applications for connected sensors.”

Last week saw German Chancellor Angela Merkel open Bosch’s latest R&D facility in Renningen, near Stuttgart where new developments in how these sensors can be used is just one of the major pushes of the company’s research. Costing around €300 million Euros to build over a period of around two years and creating 1700 jobs, the Renningen facility has been designed as a creative hub along the lines of an American University such as Stanford or Carnegie Mellon.

Three thousand experts across the Bosch group are now working on iOT alone and Bosch sees huge business potential in the services that will arise as a result from this connectivity. “If we do not want to let others seize these opportunities, then we have to be even faster and less risk-averse than before,” Dr Volkmar Denner, Chairman of the Board at Bosch told journalists at the official opening of the facility. “At an earlier stage than ever before, our engineers have to think like business people. The things that are technically feasible should not only excite our researchers, but our future customers as well.”

Grey sky thinking.
Grey sky thinking. On the 12th Floor known as ‘Platform 12’ overlooking Bosch’s test track, employees draw in markers on the windows to express their creativity and hopefully come up with some potential product ideas.

Start up mentality

To foster this spirit of creativity and entrepreneurship there’s even a special floor at Renningen known as ‘Platform 12’ where staff are encouraged to come up with new and interesting applications for the technologies they develop within a much more creative environment. Their work will focus on areas such as software engineering, sensor technology, automation, driver assistance systems, and battery technology, as well as on improved automotive powertrain systems.  Bosch has also set up its own incubator platform for new businesses within the campus along the lines of the Silicon Valley model (Bosch also has a R&D facility in Palo Alto in California which is close to companies like Google).

At Renningen the plan is that potential new products will be quickly identified with the company looking after the day-to-day tasks such as premises, financing, and other administrative tasks so its founders can focus on building the product and bringing it to market.
In the spirit of US innovation, Bosch is even prepared for failure, although in true efficient German style the startups should “fail quickly and cheaply” according to Bosch’s Michael Bolle, President, Corporate Research and Development at Bosch.

Separately, it has also acquired companies from outside the group to bring into the growing organisation. In August Bosch bought California-based company Seeo Inc which has developed next-generation lithium-ion batteries that could double the range of electric cars. Whereas traditional battery packs use electrochemical energy storage which become less safe or reliable the more powerful they are, Seeo batteries are based on non-reactive solid polymer electrolytes, which are apparently less prone to the flaws that affect current-generation cylindrical and prismatic lithium-ion batteries.

'Look Mum, no hands'.
‘Look Mum, no hands’. Bosch demonstrated automated driving to German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Automated vehicles

One area that is particularly important for Bosch is automated driving. Bosch was test driving its own highly automated vehicle on the Freeway in Palo Alto just two months after the Google Car and has also been test driving automated cars on the German A81. At first these tests took place in vehicles based on the BMW 3 Series Touring cars but more recently in the Tesla Model S. Says Dr Dirk Hoheisel, member of the board of management at Bosch: “Our engineers have now completed more than 10,000 kilometres of test drives without a hitch.”

Indeed it was this same technology which was demonstrated recently to German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the launch of the Renningen R&D facility, although sadly she didn’t get behind the wheel of the car herself (there is also a test track at Renningen.)

“We see automated driving as an important trend in reducing fatal traffic accidents,” says Bosch’s Dr Volkmar Denner. “Over 500 pedestrians died in road traffic accidents in Germany last year.” However, it’s likely to be several years before we will see these fully automated vehicles come to European roads because of regulatory restrictions (see here for more information).

In addition to working on completely automated driving technologies, Bosch is also a leading developer in driver assistance systems which are becoming increasingly commonplace especially in high end vehicles. Using these technologies the car will, for example, automatically steer out of the way if a pedestrian steps out into the road or if there’s obstacle blocking the route.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is shown the Bonirob – a robot that can sift weeds from plants

Nor is it just driving where automated vehicles and machinery can play a role. One of the first incubation companies within Bosch’s start up environment is Deepfield Robotics which has developed an agricultural robot called the ‘Bonirob’. About the size of a compact car, the Bonirob is able to combine sensor technology with algorithms and image recognition to automatically get rid of weeds without the need for potentially dangerous herbicides. It works by learning to distinguish between crops and weeds and gets rids of weeds mechanically with the help of a rod.

Explains Professor Amos Albert, a robotics expert and general manager at of Deepfield Robotics: “Over time, based on parameters such as leaf colour, shape and size, Bonirob learns to differentiate more and more accurately between the plants we want and the plants we don’t want.” Although still in test phase and very expensive (around €250,000) it’s expected the Bonirob will go into production in the next few years with the eventual cost to farmers around the same as that of an average tractor (around €50,000).

Until then if it’s robotics you’re after then you’ll have to invest around £1300 on the next best thing: a Bosch Indego robotic lawn mower. It won’t get the weeds out of the ground but it should at least give the grass a nice trim so you can enjoy the garden without having to break your back mowing the lawn!

German Chancellor Angela Merkel in front of Bosch's self-driving car
German Chancellor Angela Merkel in front of Bosch’s self-driving car

You can see all the images from Bosch’s R&D facility opening on our Facebook page here

Chris Price
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