Mechatronics refers to a design principle that brings together electrical engineering, control engineering, computer engineering, and mechanical engineering. If you have ever worked in robotics, automation, control systems, sensing systems, automotive engineering, consumer products, mobile apps, or other similar fields, then you are mighty familiar with mechatronics. The Internet of Things is giving mechatronics a new set of possibilities, both in design and functionality, which were not possible before.
To illustrate this, let us see some changes in the mechatronics capabilities and design that were brought about by the Internet of Things. Take a look, for instance, at the wheelchairs we have now. With manual wheelchairs users propel themselves forward either by using their hands or feet. For those who do not have the strength, there are also electric wheelchairs. These electric wheelchairs are powered by electric motors and controlled by a joystick.
Smart wheelchairs, on the other hand, incorporate a mechatronics technique that will add in several functionalities to electric wheelchairs, to help the user avoid dangerous situations while also helping him or her navigate safely even in congested and confined areas. The idea behind smart wheelchairs is that you embed a microprocessor control, laser sensors, and communication or information points to help the user navigate the wheelchair. The user can select his or her route, and the wheelchair will be navigating on its own, guided by the sensors in the wheelchair. The goal, however, is to complement the user’s abilities instead of being completely autonomous.
With the Internet of Things, you can do even more. RFID tags, wireless tags, and other sensors can not only help the wheelchair become aware of its surroundings, but can also help track people in wheelchairs or make it easier for them to know where to go. Moreover, the wheelchairs would also be able to connect to bus routes, railroad schedules, and other modes of transportation, making these more accessible to the handicapped. For instance, New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority is connected to a network that allows wheelchair-bound people to check its system and locate buses that are accessible. They can also find out about quick repair services such as battery replacements and motor problems, toilets, coffee shops, and restaurants that accommodate wheel chairs, and other such information. The smart IoT wheelchair transmits its location data to give the user relevant info without having to go through tons of material.
Probably the most illustrative example of how the Internet of Things changed the design and capabilities of mechatronics is to be seen in cars. Car manufacturers have long had mechatronic systems such as ABS braking to make cars safer and electronic engine control to make cars more fuel-efficient. The IoT is bringing infotainment systems to your car to bring information such as news, traffic updates, and navigation as well as entertainment such as streaming music, videos, and the ability to access your social networks while inside your car. The IoT is also allowing deployment of telematics on your car for various purposes, such as usage-based insurance, location tracking, preventive maintenance monitoring, and other services.
And if Google has its way, your cars will soon be parking and driving on their own. These cars work by using a series of cameras and sensors to do things like avoid collisions, but the IoT is also needed. Google’s driverless car currently works well in Silicon Valley, but it might not work well in other cities, such as Paris or New York City, because it requires a highly digitized map that details, not just places in Silicon Valley, but also the height of the curbs and the location of traffic lights. On top of that, the car also needs information on speed limits and other data. The car’s onboard systems access this information and add in the readings from the sensors and the images from the camera. This gives the car a sense of where it is and where it needs to go.
Currently, all the computing and processing of data is done remotely at the company’s server farms. Further, all the data is logged and sent for analysis back to Google’s computers. This enables the car to learn driving behaviors such as how people interact with cars on the road, or how a car changes lanes when following a slow garbage truck. But in the future the autonomous car will need to have such processing on board. The map information as well as data logging for ongoing improvements in the car’s behavior algorithms, though, will need to come from the IoT.
While Google’s driverless cars might be rife with possibilities and potential applications, we are simply not there yet. However the IoT is currently improving mechatronics in traffic control systems. In Toronto, for instance, networked traffic lights no longer rely on timers and sensors to do their work. The city’s system, which is called Marlin, makes use of cameras and computers to capture traffic data. The traffic light then talks to other traffic lights in the area to see if it is making the congestion better or worse. As a result, these traffic lights continue to learn and adjust in real-time to current regional traffic conditions rather than simply basing their decisions on what their sensors tell them.
These are just some of the technologies that show just how the Internet of Things has changed the field of mechatronics. The IoT enables engineers to design cars, wheelchairs, traffic lights, and other machineries to better suit the end-user’s needs and to add more features and functionalities to their products. It can also help solve common problems by turning mechatronics systems into self-learning systems by gathering data on how well they are fulfilling their purpose. The more data you gather and analyze, the better it works, as the data would reveal flaws in the design that can then be corrected.
Without the Internet of Things, it would be rather difficult to serve up awesome possibilities and conveniences that mechatronics might offer. The systems have sensors to help them become aware of their surroundings, but only when they transmit the data and gain insights from other devices, a server, or a human can they become truly innovative and game changing. IoT, including the gathering, storing, transmitting, and analyzing of data, also gives rise to better products. This is especially true for self-learning devices such as the driverless car and traffic lights.
Without IoT, smart wheelchairs would just be a fancy version of the manual wheelchair, instead of being able to offer the convenience of helping the user find buses and other establishments that they could go to. Without IoT, machinery would require constant human supervision, or be at risk of breakage. Without IoT driverless cars would never be a reality. Development would stop with cars being location- and environment-aware, but only able to alert human drivers to dangers rather than taking action themselves.