Imagine Alexa or Siri with no microphone? It just wouldn’t work. Sensors underpin myriad IoT applications - from fleet management to refrigeration, sensors reign supreme. But what are sensors all about? As the name implies, they are the eyes, ears, and nose of any IoT application. In this article, we uncover what sensors are, how they work and evaluate if they’re a good investment.
Sensors: What are they?
Sensors are devices that measure and respond to the changes in the environment and communicate that information with other systems. Importantly, sensors are always used with other electronic systems. In other words, they are a component of a larger system. For example, a sensor could monitor your fridge temperature. If the temperature suddenly drops and the sensor is connected to an IoT system, an alert could be sent to your phone to let you know there is a problem.
Strange but True Some say the earliest ‘sensors’ in history were canaries in the coal mine, chirping if there were any harmful gasses to warn miners. But sensors have come a long way since then. Tiny as they may be, sensors are valuable pieces of hardware, used globally by businesses to monitor their operations and control their assets
How they work
On the highest level, sensors collect and monitor data from the environment around them. But what happens after that? Where does this information go? Let’s take a closer look at an IoT ecosystem with sensors to get a better understanding.
To explain how the system works, let us assume that this company is a large refrigeration company that rents its large industrial freezers to supermarkets across the Western Cape. The purpose of installing sensors, in this specific use case, is to monitor the temperature of the fridge and to ensure that the refrigerator does not move from the supermarket to be used elsewhere.
Two sensors, shown in Column A, are installed inside each fridge: one to monitor the temperature, the other to serve as a geo-tracking unit. These sensors monitor and collect relevant data from the fridge and pass this data using BLE (low energy Bluetooth connection) to a router, as seen in Column B.
This router’s job is to translate the data emitted from the sensors and transmit the data through to the cloud platform in Column D. This platform allows businesses to analyse trends and make evidence-based decisions. For this refrigeration company, monitoring the temperature of the fridge not only indicates whether the fridge is working as it should but it allows the company to troubleshoot issues before they happen - like servicing the fridge before it breaks.
Why we love sensors
- Predictive Maintenance. By providing data that pinpoint abnormalities and trends, sensors make it possible to address operational mishaps before they occur.
- Remote Monitoring. For many businesses, sensors provide mission-critical data about the state of assets when it is not possible to have someone supervise assets 24/7. By eliminating the manual effort of retrieving asset data or inspecting assets in the field, sensors also curb operational costs.
- Human-Error Mitigation. Sometimes, changes to an asset’s state are so granular that it is difficult to detect with the naked eye. Using sensors reduces the probability of someone missing something, or of human-error occurring during the data collection. This improves the overall accuracy, reliability, and availability of data.
- Real-Time Visibility. When hooked up to an IoT system, companies can view the collected data in real-time and can monitor the status of their assets/environments from a centralised platform.
With sensors evolving so rapidly, it is becoming more common that dual-functionality (hybrid) sensors are used to monitor assets and gather multi-purpose data. Industrial IoT sensors serve as an essential component to connect and send information to the cloud, where it is processed. A complete sensor system results in fewer maintenance emergencies and greater productivity overall. But be warned: attempting to set-up and deploy a sensor-based application is, like all IoT endeavours, a high-risk task for most.