Apple filed two patent applications for new sensors that can “smell” the local environment, as well as to detect extremely fine dust particles or pollution.
The first application, entitled “Compact Particulate Material Sensor”, is aimed at detecting air pollution, namely the presence of fine particulate matter with a diameter smaller than 2.5 mu.m.
Apple’s solution is to use a particulate matter sensing device comprised of a light source pulsing light at a specific wavelength, and a number of photodetectors. A thin film filter over the photodetectors is tuned to be transparent to scattered light of a similar wavelength to the pulse, allowing the pulse reflected from particulates to pass through.
A second version also suggests the use of a charge-sensitive electronic circuit that is configured to reject background light, an addition that could allow such a system to reject any false positives caused through externally-sourced light waves that happen to use the same wavelength from being detected.
The second related patent application, “Systems and Methods for Environment Sensing,” is effectively for the detection of chemicals in the air. While this would be useful for safety applications alone, Apple also suggests the system would use sensors to sense a smell associated with a “chemical species.” and when fed into an artificial intelligence engine, could provide “smell recognition capabilities.”
The application outlines the use of ionic liquid sensors, tuned to particular ranges, enclosed in a micro electro-mechanical system (MEMS) on a chip.
Using multiple sensors with different resistances, the sensors can be used to measure different types of chemicals in the air. Alternative versions include the use of an analogue multiplexer, a low-pass filter and an analogue-to-digital converter for signal pre-processing and for creating digital versions.
Though the main concern of the system would be for air safety, the ability to smell could help in other ways, with the application suggesting there could be “spoiled food material detection, body odor detection, and health applications.” In one example, a user’s sweat could be “smelled” to determine their blood sugar levels, something that would enable a device like an Apple Watch to perform a form of glucose monitoring without relying on direct contact with the user.
Apple files numerous patent applications on a regular basis, and while the publication of a filing may be an indicator of areas of interest to the company, there is no guarantee the concepts described will actually make it into a consumer product or service.
This is not the only time Apple has considered adding gas-sensing technology to its devices, as one patent application from January suggested the use of “chemically robust miniature gas sensors” for mobile devices, wearable devices, and smarthome and IoT hardware.
On blood sugar monitoring, Apple has considered the use of a non-invasive system, with an August 2018 patent application suggesting an optics-based version that analyzes the user’s skin.