A seismic vibration sensor that requires no power
A seismic vibration sensor that requires no power

Sensing technology is becoming an increasingly desirable component of the architectural palette. With the capability to detect important contextual changes that lie outside of human sensing capacity—such as low-level seismic activity or subtle changes in air pollution levels—sensors are increasingly being deployed throughout the physical environment. However, one primary challenge remains: how to power them. 

A student at the Victoria University of Wellington has a compelling solution with regard to seismic sensing. Daniel Tomicek has developed a sensor that uses the kinetic energy created by an earthquake to monitor and report information about the event. The sensor is a low-cost device that may be easily applied to monitor potential damage to buildings and infrastructure. The greater the vibrations, the more energy that is delivered to the sensor, and the more data packets the sensor can send wirelessly to a remote computer for processing. When there is no activity, the sensor remains dormant. 

Tomicek's invention was tested successfully as part of the recent "Te Papa Awesome Forces" exhibition in the Earthquake House at the Museum of New Zealand. “The biggest challenge has been figuring out how to make the sensor work from a cold start—how to ensure the initial packet of information was sent, given that earthquake movements begin so suddenly,” said Tomicek in a Victoria University press release. “Testing at the Earthquake House was a real success. The device managed to sense each earthquake and send packets of information for each one.” 

With further development, Tomicek's approach could be applied to other forms of zero-energy sensing—such as meteorological activity based on wind power, rainfall levels based on stormwater surges, or human traffic based on footfall pressure. The low initial cost as well as life-cycle cost of this technology suggests that it may become quite popular with building owners, since it will offer a convenient way for them to monitor their investments and safeguard against potential harm. Given such a development, it might benefit architects to become more knowledgeable about sensing technologies so that they can assist in the successful selection and planning of sensors in their buildings.

Blaine Brownell is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.