How IoT Works – Part 1: Sensors

This article is the first part of our “How IoT Works” series, in which we’ll cover the key elements of IoT in a simple, understandable way.

The hype surrounding the Internet of Things (IoT) has been huge for many years already, and Gartner estimates 20 billion devices to be connected to the internet by 2020.

IoT has countless use cases in a variety of industries such as logistics, healthcare, maintenance, manufacturing, and construction. The ultimate goal of applying IoT in businesses is to save time and money and boost efficiency.

In manufacturing, for example, IoT can be used to monitor manufacturing machines for overheating or excess vibration. That enables manufacturers to apply preventive maintenance instead of reactive maintenance so that unplanned and costly downtime can be avoided.

But how does IoT actually work? Typically, IoT solutions consist of four fundamental elements:

  1. Sensors
  2. Connectivity
  3. Data Processing
  4. User Interface

We’ll start our “How IoT Works” series with the first element: sensors.

What Is a Sensor?

IoT workflow starts with sensor devices. Sensor devices are nothing new: they have been used by organizations for a long time already (did you know the first sensors were invented in the 1800s?). However, the role of sensors has increased enormously with the rise of the Internet of Things. TechTarget explains sensors this way:

“A sensor is a device that detects and responds to some type of input from the physical environment. The specific input could be light, heat, motion, moisture, pressure, or any one of a great number of other environmental phenomena. The output is generally a signal that is converted to human-readable display at the sensor location or transmitted electronically over a network for reading or further processing.”

In the case of the Internet of Things, sensor devices are the on-the-ground pieces of hardware used to collect data from their environment.

Sensor Types

IoT sensor devices can be attached to practically anything nowadays, but every IoT use case requires a specific type of sensor. Here are some examples of the most used IoT sensor types and their use cases.

Temperature sensors

Temperature sensors play a critical role in many IoT applications. For example, maintaining the right temperature is crucial for many manufacturing processes. Monitoring temperature remotely with IoT sensors enables predictive maintenance and reduces expensive downtime. Another use case for temperature sensors is cold chain monitoring in food and pharmaceutical industries.

Level sensors

In waste management, for example, level sensors enable trash bins to be emptied only when needed. Another use case for level sensors is measuring tank levels (e.g. fuel) in liquid asset inventory.

Accelerometer sensors

Measuring acceleration can be useful in many use cases, such as monitoring your vehicles. Accelerometer sensors can also be useful in detecting excess vibration of a manufacturing machine or unauthorized movement of an object that should be stationary (anti-theft protection).

Humidity sensors

Measuring humidity is essential for many manufacturing processes including pharmaceutical manufacture and paper making. Humidity sensors can also be used in greenhouse monitoring.

GPS trackers

GPS trackers are used to track an asset’s geographical position. They can be used in vehicles or shipping containers, for example.

Current Challenges

There are some factors that limit the use of IoT sensor devices. The main ones are

  1. size,
  2. prize, and
  3. battery life.

It’s difficult to find a sensor device that is both small and cheap in addition to having a long battery life (e.g. five years). Many sensor devices today are still quite bulky: for example, GPS tracking devices can have the size of a smartphone. The size is also correlated with the battery life: the bigger the battery, the bigger the sensor device.

However, the combination of sensor devices’ size, price, and battery life will get better in the near future as technology evolves.

What’s Next in the IoT Workflow?

Now that we have the sensor devices in place, it’s time to send the collected data forward. In IoT applications, sensors are connected to a network (WiFi, LPWAN, cellular, etc.) over which the collected data is transmitted. The destination is usually a cloud-based service where the data is processed.

We’ll talk more about connectivity in our next article “How IoT Works – Part 2: Connectivity”. Stay tuned!

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