Microstrain’s orientation sensor
gets the attention of U.S. Navy

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Microstrain Inc.’s MEMS-based orientation sensor for monitoring and treating paralyzed limbs fell onto the radar screen of military organizations this year. Now, Microstrain’s newest product, the 3DM-G orientation sensor, has been deployed by the U.S. Navy for unmanned aerial vehicles.

“Our 3DM-G is a good example of a sensor that taps into the best characteristics of different MEMS-sensing technologies,” said Steven Arms, president of the Burlington, Vt.-based company. Microstrain has slapped together nine sensors bolstered by proprietary software running on a microprocessor. By complementing the strengths and weaknesses of the different kinds of sensors on the board, Microstrain says it has delivered a low-cost, high-function sensor.

At the Sensors Expo in May in San Jose, Calif., this product walked away with a gold award in the best sensor category.

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Arms founded Microstrain in 1987 while developing knee sensor implants for his master’s thesis at the University of Vermont. “In the late ’90s, as MEMS sensors became increasingly available for sensing other parameters, such as acceleration, angular rate and low level magnetic fields, we employed them in concert with microprocessors to produce smart sensors,” Arms said.

MicroStrain’s sophisticated sensor technology is used in medical instruments, monitoring of civil structures — such as bridges, dams and buildings — and aerospace. In the automotive industry, MicroStrain’s Linear Displacement Transducers provide feedback for electronic valve control in automotive engines, an advance that will do away with camshafts and allow more precise control of valve timing, the company said. International Truck and Engine Corp. uses these sensors in its prototype engines.

In the medical field, MicroStrain has applied its sensor technology to build enhanced miniaturized implantable ligament strain sensors for the University of Vermont and biomedical researchers. MicroStrain’s MEMS-based inclinometers and orientation sensing modules, which were originally designed for feedback for the re-animation of paralyzed limbs, are now being used by the U.S. Navy.

According to Paul Turner, industry analyst at Venture Development Corp., Microstrain is ahead of the game in the next evolution of a MEMS industry thus far dominated by single-product companies that first build the product, then seek the customer.

“The next step, as the competition starts to pick up, is to go for greater integration of devices to address customer needs,” Turner said.

“By taking existing MEMS technology and adding their expertise, what companies like Microstrain are doing is helping to create an interest in MEMS technology,” said Marlene Bourne, a MEMS analyst at In-Stat/MDR.

Microstrain says its focus on the customer has vastly multiplied its MEMS and non-MEMS sensor product lines across the medical, automotive and, now, the military industries. Its next challenges are in hiring and training more staff to match the demand.

Until now the company has liked its low profile — a 13-person company enjoying 20 percent growth per year. “Microstrain seems to be growing organically along with the market. If something goes wrong, they’ll be in a better position to respond with this strategy,” Turner said.

After two infusions of money from Small Business Innovations Research grants, Microstrain has steadily ploughed back its profits into the company over 10 years.

Roger Grace, president of Roger Grace Associates, a San Francisco-based marketing consulting firm specializing in high technology, commends Microstrain’s approach. “There’s something to be said about growing by profitability. The get-rich-quick scheme really doesn’t help the MEMS and nanotechnology industry gain stability and credibility.”


Company file: Microstrain Inc.
(last updated July 8, 2002)

Microstrain Inc.

294 N. Winooski Ave.
Burlington, VT, 05401-3680

Steven Arms founded the company following research he did as part of his 1987 master’s thesis at the University of Vermont. He was investigating the strain behavior of the human knee and researching microscopic devices for implantation into the knee. “Things needed to be small and we had to develop something that would work in a wet environment,” said Arms. MEMS technology, he said, is a natural extension of the “small culture” of his company.

Steven Arms: president
Chris Townsend: executive vice president of engineering


Investment history
Small Business Innovation Research awards and other grants have totaled more than $2.8 million.

Microstrain says that quotations are coming so fast it does not have enough people to do follow-up of quotes. “Our product line is so broad now that sales people who support them have to know enough about a lot of things,” says Arms.


  • Crossbow Technology
  • BEI Systron-Donner
  • Watson Industries Inc.
  • Selected small tech product
    An orientation sensor, 3DM-G, uses MEMS sensors and a microprocessor. It was originally designed for a medical application; it has now been deployed by the U.S. Navy.

    How small tech is used
    The combination of multiple MEMs sensors with proprietary software algorithms (running on tiny microprocessors) has helped Microstrain enhance performance and simplify its sensor’s outputs, and still keep things small. 3DM-G (which has 9 sensors) makes use of the strengths and weaknesses of different MEMS sensing technologies. “Our built-in algorithm combines these sensors’ outputs on the fly to prevent gyro drift, and to eliminate the inertial influences on the accelerometers, which provides high performance in both static and dynamic conditions,” said Steven Arms, the company’s president.

    Selected patents

  • Inclined plate 360 degree absolute angle sensor
  • Miniaturized displacement transducer assembly
  • Differential variable reluctance transducer
  • Method of and means for implanting a pressure and force sensing apparatus
  • Goals
    Hiring more staff to keep up with demand and possibly seeking investment money.

    Why they’re in small tech
    It’s an outgrowth of working in a medical area and having to build things that had to be really tiny in order to work at all. “You can’t put things inside knee joints unless they’re very small.”

    What keeps them up at night
    “Our puppy who is about 14 weeks old, who likes to walk a lot,” Arms said. “We really don’t have a lot to worry about — we have a great team, great contracts.”

    URL: http://www.microstrain.com
    Phone: 802-862-6629
    Fax: 802-863-4093


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