Sensor technology makes shadows a game changer

8th February 2024
Sheryl Miles

Precision measurement is essential for many industries. A team of researchers at CSEM has developed a sensing technology that sets new standards in this field – by using the interplay of light and shadow.

Their innovation, called ‘spaceCoder’, has been recognised with an award from within the company.

Where there is light, there is also shadow – a universal principle that CSEM researchers exploit in an innovative way. Their spaceCoder technology consists of a system that uses specialised algorithms and an optical sensor that detects light passing through a custom-made shadow mask.

When an object is placed in front of the sensor, the system can precisely determine the position of a light source in space based on the shadows it creates. This clever method allows for the measurement of illuminated objects with extreme accuracy.

"We are operating at a nanometric level here, that's to say at the scale of one thousandth of a thousandth of a millimetre," explains Andrea Dunbar, Business Developer for Data and AI at CSEM.

CSEM researchers Eric Grenet and Edoardo Franzi were the pioneers of this technical achievement, as they filed the patent for the underlying technology in 2010. Since then, Grenet and other members of Dunbar’s team have improved and refined spaceCoder’s technology through continuous research and development, making it suitable for practical use. The sensor is now almost as small as a sugar cube and offers high precision, reliability, and affordability, as it does not require expensive components like optical lenses. Therefore, shadow-based measurement technology has great potential for various sectors:

“We have already used the technology for some exciting applications in precision machinery and MedTech,” says Andrea Dunbar.

Measure with precision before picking up the scalpel

For example, the sensor can measure a patient’s knee accurately before surgery, which is crucial for fitting an artificial knee joint. In future, the technology could be useful in minimally invasive surgeries, by tracking the 3D position of robot controlled instruments in real-time. This could enhance surgical precision even further. The technology could also revolutionise the railways, as it can check the track alignment perfectly.

SpaceCoder’s technology has a huge economic potential, which could reach several billion Swiss Francs, depending on the sector and application. Eric Grenet and Edoardo Franzi who co-invented spaceCoder’s technology with former CSEM employees David Hasler and Peter Masa, received the ‘CSEM Inventor Award 2024’ for their visionary work and its diverse applications. By presenting this accolade, the technology innovation centre highlights how it is essential to not only have forward thinking ideas, but also pursue and improve them.

"The full potential of an idea or a patent often only emerges over time, as more use cases are developed," notes Dunbar.

The development of spaceCoder’s technology illustrates this point and reflects CSEM's mission to develop practical and innovative solutions that not only advance working practices, but also have a positive impact on Swiss society and its economy.

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