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Ultrasonic Sensors for Consumer Electronics: MEMS Extension

Two ultrasonic sensors compared to a penny.

Research at the Berkeley Sensor and Actuator Center (BSAC) has developed technology to make tiny, ultralow power ultrasonic sensors. These sensors use ultrasonic waves to detect objects and have applications in rangefinding, proximity, and presence detection. Multiple sensors can be used together to locate an object in three-dimensional space, enabling new user-interfaces such as gesture-based input. Because these sensors are ultra-low power, they can operate in small, battery-powered devices for months or years. The BSAC-developed ultrasonic sensor technology was licensed to Chirp Microsystems, a venture-funded start-up company that is working to commercialize it. 

Ultrasonic sensors are widely used in everyday applications such as the parking-assist sensors in automobile bumpers. Relative to optical sensors, ultrasound has a number of advantages since it operates in all lighting conditions (total darkness to full sunlight), is insensitive to the color of an object, and it offers very precise range measurement. However, existing ultrasonic sensors are too big, too expensive, and too high power for use in most consumer electronic devices. The ultrasonic sensors developed by BSAC researchers operate at microwatt power levels, orders of magnitude lower than existing ultrasonic or optical sensors. BSAC’s MEMS-based ultrasonic sensors are millimeters on a side, allowing them to fit into the smallest consumer electronic devices.

MEMS based ultrasonic sensors have potential uses in consumer electronics devices such as laptops, tablets, and smart-phones. They may also be used in smart-home applications such as occupancy sensing. Because of their multiple potential applications in areas of extremely high consumer and industrial demand, their economic impacts should be substantial.

Economic Impact:

This technology is generating continuing interest and support from BSAC’s industry members. This has led to another BSAC inspired startup, Chirp Microsystems (CM). CM has commercialized it and is currently sampling products based on this NSF I/UCRC supported breakthrough technology. Commercial impacts are expected to exceed $100M as measured by anticipated future valuations of Chirp. Chirp has been recognized by EE Times as "One of the 15 Startups to watch in 2015." A refereed paper from the Horsley/Boser research groups "3D Ultrasonic Gesture Recognition" received EE Times’ designation as one of "5 Hot Papers" at the 2014 International Solid State Circuits Conference (ISSCC), the leading technical conference of the semiconductor industry. Because of their multiple potential applications in areas of extremely high consumer and strong industrial demand, their economic impacts should be substantial.

For more information, contact David Horsley at the University of California, Davis,, Bio, 530.341.3236 or Bernhard Boser at the University of California, Berkeley,, Bio, 510.643.8350.

PDF icon BSAC-2016.pdf