Gone are the days when an Engineering students could be identified carrying a T-square and a sheet holder. The days when a tech graduate’s first personal multi-meter was as precious as a stethoscope to a medical student. History is the era when McGuyer would be seen getting out of any tough situation using only a duct tape and Swiss army knife. In the modern world, single multifunction device is the real deal. Today technology packed smartphones have replaced most traditional measurement hardware and the device is on route to banish all tools used by generations of Engineer.
Today, there are more resources in an engineer’s palm than would be in many libraries and labs. Smartphones are not just a communication gadget but a device that has empowered Engineers with numerous ubiquitous opportunities. From CAD to FEA, from measuring distances to RPM, Smartphones can now do it all.
The sensors in modern smart phone are not limited to accelerometer and gyroscope. The new generation of smartphones also have magnetometer, barometer, hygrometer (humidity sensor) and proximity meter. Most of these sensors are present to allow for GPS or gaming functionality but can be used in a variety of other applications. Furthermore phone components like speakers, microphones and camera can also be used as sensors by apps. It can be foreseen that in the near future, technology singularity may replace most instruments with just one device. And therefore labelling the device just as a phone would be not accurate description. Similarly, the functionality can be further extended by attaching the phone to a variety of accessories. The addition, the time- of-flight sensors for smartphones, that are currently under development, will be able to provide 3D scanning in the near future.
Following are the areas where smartphone can be used by engineers. The link to relevant apps are also provided.
For CAD applications both 2D and 3D, dozens of app are available. The most high profile app available is AutoCAD 360 (25 MB) by Autodesk, which is a trusted name in Engineering fraternity. The app allows creation, editing and sharing of CAD. Despite the lack of powerful graphics hardware in phones, the application runs surprisingly smooth. This product is popular with both Civil and Mechanical engineers and can be used by Electronic/ Electrical engineers for circuit layout. Another CAD product that is popular is called Finger CAD (4.2 MB). It allows 3D modelling but is only available for iPhone. DWG Fastview (36 MB) is also immensely popular with many users suggesting it a better download than AutoCAD 360 because of no restriction on file size. Note that all these apps provide good functionality in their free versions but more features can be unlocked by paying for their Pro-versions. Prices range from £2.99 to £ 6.99.
Computer Aided Engineering is computationally expensive. As Smart phones processor and operating systems are expanding in power, light weight FEA applications can now be handled on phones. Apps like Lucid FEA (8.2 MB) allow setup, solving and post processing on phone. However, these phone only apps will always be limited to Memory and CPU speed. The scope for CAE through smartphones lies in cloud computing. Apps have been developed that allow user inputs on phone but the computation is carried out on remote server.
There are several post-processing tools available on phone (FEA View 3D, 1 MB). At the moment they only handle structural FEA data. CFD Apps are not available because their data is generally a couple orders higher in magnitude even for small applications.
The measurement of revolutions or angular speed of a rotating body is called Tachometry. Modern smart phones can be used as Tachometers. They allows the choice of four different methodologies for measuring rpm each more suited to a particular application. Some apps like RPM meter (366 K) use proximity sensors to measure the speed of the revolving object. Sound based apps record the noise and analyse the wave pattern to determine the revs. The sound based apps are particularly useful for measuring speed of inaccessible devices. For example engine RPM can be analysed by RPM Tachometer & Shift Light (5.2 MB) among others. Similarly camera flash light can also be used as a strobe light to measure RPM. Apps like Strobo RPM Hz Light Free (1 MB) allow for this functionality. Lastly, through the presence of magnetometer inside the phone, the change in electric field can be detected. This functionality is used by apps like Magnetic Counter for detecting vibrations or RPM.
Telemetry (measurement of distances) is important for civil/structural engineers as well as architects. There are two different types of sensing methodology that allows this functionality. One uses the reflection of camera light and the other uses sound reflection. The app Smart Meter (3.4 MB) is of the first type and measures distances using light reflection. Similarly, distances can also be measured by reflection of sound. An App called Sonar (31Kb) uses ping sound to measure distance. Caution: Headphones must not be worn when using this app.
There are several apps that provide data for temperature. They can provide indoor and outdoor temperature as well as body temperature. However, the rise of temperature of the battery effects the outcome significantly and the sensor in the phone often does not provide accurate readings. Temperature measurements can be off by as much as 6 degrees. It is paramount that the battery temperature is equal to the room temperature for the apps to work accurately.
Attachments that allow phone to become thermal imaging camera are available and are more accurate compared to those using phones internal temperature sensor. FLIR one for example is a phone attachment that is available for both iOS and Android platforms.
The popular items in a civil engineer’s tool box include a Bubble Level and a Plumb Bob. Apps like Bubble Level (69 KB) are extremely popular that use phones internal gyroscope to provide data on horizontal and vertical alignment. Most apps provide this information fairly accurately. Similarly slope/angle can also be measured by placing the smart phone on the inclined surface
The phone can also be used as altimeter using the pressure sensor inside the phone. Apps like Accurate Altimeter (2.6 MB) can provide elevation data but requires an internet connection in addition to the barometer sensor inside the phone. The reason being the need for barometric pressure at sea level value, which is obtained from a local weather station. This value is than used as a benchmark to calculate the difference and hence the elevation.
There are several uses of measuring magnetic field. The magnetic field of the earth can provide geo orientation and the phone can be used as a compass. The magnetometer inside the phone can also be used as a current sensor. Although not very accurate, but it can detect with ease any wire that is transferring more current than the other, without the need of probes. Furthermore, the magnetometer can also be used to detect metal or differentiate different materials.
If data from any one of the sensor inside the phone has to be measured for a long duration, than Data logging app can be used. Purpose built Data logger are pretty expensive. Although they are more robust and sturdy in design so to be placed in harsh environments, but their price often doesn’t justify feasibility. For many trivial applications, it is cheaper to buy a cheap smart phone and use it as a data logger.
Engineering handbook’s and calculation aids are also available as apps. It is no wonder that Smart phones are getting banned in College/ University exams. SCADA apps can link your phone to water pumping stations or wind farms, allowing control from remote location. Already many energy companies are provide the control of home energy system through smartphones if a smart meter is installed.
Although most of the links here are for Android apps but almost all apps are also available for IOS.
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