Engineers deconstruct smartphones to find new uses

Dismantling smartphones and reusing the components is easier and cheaper than designing new devices from scratch

By , IDG News Service |  Mobile & Wireless, smartphones

Smartphones, it seems, can do anything.

Today's phones pack so much power and so many sensors into such a small space -- and at a relatively low cost -- that they are increasingly being used for inventive purposes. Just this week Strand 1, a nano-satellite based on a Google Nexus One cell phone, was launched into space on an Indian rocket.

It's not just the hardware that brings an advantage: Android is an increasingly popular platform for development.

So, when researchers at Germany's Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits were asked to come up with a camera that could be mounted on an eagle to get a literal bird's-eye view of its life, they too turned to a cell phone. But you can't exactly tape a smartphone to a bird's back.

Instead, the Fraunhofer engineers broke apart the phone and repackaged some of the components on custom boards. The boards leverage the small, low-cost, standard interface on phone components into units that can be easily employed for other projects.

"The idea three years ago was to use the very powerful processor used in cell phones or tablets for other applications, like professional cameras and different markets like surveillance, broadcast," said Michael Schmid, a researcher at the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits.

The eagle cam contained a camera module, processor, memory, and could communicate over Wi-Fi or LTE, so it was possible to stream real-time video from the back of the bird.

(See video from the camera and of the component boards on YouTube.)

Another camera the institute has developed retains the compass, gyroscope, temperature sensor, accelerometer and barometer often found in modern phones, and there's a Bluetooth interface for connection to other devices such as a GPS unit. That means the camera isn't just capable to recording video, but also of bringing in sensor data. Video can be output using standard interfaces like HDMI, Ethernet or HD-SDI, and all controlled by Android in a device smaller than a cell phone.

The Fraunhofer researchers say they are looking to work with other organizations on developing custom projects.

"On the one side, there are these very powerful processors, but on the other side, small and medium companies in different markets don't have access to that," said Schmid. "That's why we decided that we close the gap between that. We try to bring up reference boards, train engineers in these companies, how they can use these processors. We wrote API drivers, we wrote software, sample applications, that make life easier for these end customers."

The movie, "The Way of the Eagle," will be released in 2014 by Terra Mater Factual Studios, a part of Red Bull Media House.

Martyn Williams covers mobile telecoms, Silicon Valley and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Martyn on Twitter at @martyn_williams. Martyn's e-mail address is martyn_williams@idg.com

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