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Published: 13 February 2014

MEng researchers pioneer very low cost air flow sensor arrays

A new type of air flow sensor is being used across a range of applications from diagnostic medicine to environmental monitoring.

Developed by Lecturer in Aerospace Engineering Dr David Birch and Research Officer Dr Paul Nathan, the novel sensor arrays cost a fraction of the price of other sensor solutions currently available, while providing good functionality.

Since developing a bespoke experimental system for a UK food shipping company, enabling the client to model the flow of air around perishable foods during shipping, the two academics have been approached by other customers with a diverse range of needs. The projects they have undertaken to date – some with external research funding – include developing sensors for a Formula One team and a British Olympic sports team.

One of the key developments is a technique for producing small arrays of highly sensitive pressure sensors using low-cost, off-the-shelf technology. Together with new techniques in 3D printing and data analysis, bespoke airspeed probes can now be made in sizes and configurations which were previously impossible. The ability to collect and integrate information from a large number of sensors means that the probes are more accurate and more robust than existing technology.

The technology has been made possible by Dr Birch and Dr Nathan’s unique combination of skills. Dr Birch says, “I put myself through college by working as a jeweller's assistant – which gave me some of the practical skills needed – and am a specialist in aerodynamics, while Dr Nathan brings expertise in precision electronics.

He adds: “As the cost of electronics has come down, and electronics have shrunk in size, we are able to make sensors so compact that they can compete against laser diagnostics in terms of functionality, but cost – in some cases – only one per cent of the price.”

This capability gives the sensors wide potential use across many fields. One application, currently in development, is a ping pong ball-sized probe featuring 37 sensors, designed for atmospheric measurement and due to be used on an urban air quality monitoring station. Other sensor concepts currently in development include air data systems for aircraft and novel monitoring devices for medical diagnostics.