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InfoQ Homepage Articles A Quick Look at Advanced IoT Sensors for the Enterprise Going Digital

A Quick Look at Advanced IoT Sensors for the Enterprise Going Digital

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Key Takeaways

  • Sensors are key components for the Internet of Things thanks to their ability to take measurements of and collect data
  • Sensors can also be "smart" when they can not only measure a physical quantity, but also process information, communicate with other devices, and make decisions
  • Advanced sensors include stereo vision sensors, electricity sensors, inclination sensors, object detection, and others
  • An especially promising new technology is battery-less sensors which have very low power requirements and can be deployed at larger scale
  • When choosing a sensor, you should consider its reliability, accuracy, and security

A number of statistical organizations and IoT companies have forecast  a stable growth of the Internet of Things market for the last 10 years. As we look to the future, an even bigger growth can be anticipated in the IoT market. Indeed, by 2028, the global Internet of Things market is expected to be worth $1,854.76 billion, reports Fortune Business Insights. Growing demand shows that many business sectors are increasingly in need of IoT solutions. More companies than ever before are incorporating IoT solutions to meet their business requirements, driving demand continuously higher.

Working at PSA, the author of this article is constantly faced with the need of helping companies solve their complex business objectives integrating Internet of Things solutions. Now he’d like to share his hands-on experience and observations in the field of the Internet of Things, unleashing the potential of IoT sensors, as well as helping companies select suitable ones.

What role do sensors play in the Industrial IoT market? 

Sensors are called “things” in the Internet of Things ecosystem. Therefore, in the rest of this article, we will also often refer to them as “things”. Things collect information from the Enterprise, such as data from a factory’s equipment to predict when it will start to malfunction; data from the detection of external objects and people in specific areas; data describing working conditions, etc. Once collected, these data points become the basis for analysis of the company’s performance, helping to develop new business strategies, optimize resources, improve productivity and Enterprise security, etc.

The latest report by Mordor Intelligence confirms the need for IoT sensors, also called m2m (machine to machine) sensors, in the manufacturing industry, showing that the sensor market is expected to grow at 24% each year through 2026. To stay competitive in this market, manufacturers need to develop more practical and affordable sensors which can work in various conditions. That’s why we can see improvements in the reliability of sensors, their working range, response time, performance, durability, ease of integration with other equipment, and intercommunication capabilities.

IoT sensor features: what types of sensors can be used in the Enterprise?

Compared to other components of the IoT ecosystem, a sensor is not a complicated piece of equipment. It can take different measurements, for instance, the temperature of the machines, their sounds, vibrations, etc. Unlike a normal sensor, a “smart” sensor can not only measure a physical quantity, but also process information, communicate with other devices, and make decisions. In addition, they are faster, more accurate, and can even consume less power. They typically use the following components:

  • The sensor itself to collect the data
  • Microprocessor to produce data output
  • Wireless communication to send output to a specified network location.

In factories where Industry 4.0 solutions are implemented, smart sensors will be required to provide the measurements described above in much more complicated working conditions. For instance, they can monitor moving objects, measure the distance to difficult-to-reach areas using ultrasound, and be connected with potentially dangerous equipment, increasing worker safety. Also, smart sensors are now able to perform functions that only complex equipment can perform. They can replace a conductometer, which is used to measure conductivity, or a TDS meter, which measures salt concentration. As an example, we can also mention the work we did at PSA to use smart sensors in fuel dispensing systems.

Advanced IoT sensors can be programmed depending on the conditions in which they will be used. If necessary, the sensor’s functionality can be updated, that is, adjusted to a new working environment.

The most common types of IoT sensors used in Enterprises are:

  • Pressure sensors can sense changes of pressure in liquids and gasses, as well as measure force per unit area
  • Temperature sensors can measure device or environment  temperature and detect how it changes
  • Chemical sensors can detect the presence of chemical substances in the environment
  • Motion sensors are able to detect the movement of a physical object
  • Proximity sensors can determine how far an object is
  • Water quality sensors can check the presence of chemicals in water, its oxygen and PH levels, as well as electrical conductivity
  • Smoke sensors can detect presence of smoke on the premises
  • Infrared (IR) sensors can measure the level of infrared radiation and heat
  • Level sensors can be used to measure the level of liquids, powders, and granular materials in some tanks
  • Image sensors can capture the images for their further processing and analysis
  • Acceleration sensors can measure the acceleration of an object
  • Gyroscopic sensors can determine an object's orientation, measuring its angular velocity
  • Optical sensors can detect objects via the detection of light reflection

Sensor technologies that can improve the IoT ecosystem

Today, manufacturers of sensor solutions are focusing on the field of IoT because of the corresponding demand in the sensor market. Both startups and established companies may be interested in developing sensor solutions. The IoT sector benefits from their interest because sensor solutions are becoming more functional, durable, and affordable. Implementing these sensors in the Enterprise is part of building the IoT ecosystem. At PSA, we’ve repeatedly seen how this framework enables our clients to monitor all the working processes in the company at a glance.

So, let's look at sensor solutions that are considered the most advanced in the IoT market.

Stereo vision sensors

Machine vision is frequently used in EIoT solutions, especially to perform quality control of products. However, these vision systems are complex and rather expensive, which makes them much more difficult for smaller companies to implement. 

Today, they can be replaced with modern IoT sensors, as Denso showed. Denso has developed the smallest stereo vision sensor for use in cars to help prevent collisions. These vision sensors are implemented in smart cameras and can also be used for object recognition, manufacturing process control, and product quality assurance. Small, practical equipment can be installed in a factory to monitor a large number of production points.

A sensor called Visionary-T DT developed by the company Sick can detect objects at a distance of up to 160 ft. It is a 3D video sensor that uses Time-of-Flight (TOF) technology to detect the presence or absence of 3D objects. Solutions developed using this technology are candidates to be chosen to ensure the security of the Enterprise, and to protect objects or areas. The sensor uses laser technology to capture images, allowing you to get a detailed 3D picture in real time. These sensors, along with cameras, can be used to create highly accurate digital twins that will be able to provide the best predictions. Such sensors are also convenient to use in warehouses operated by robots, as well as to control access to the premises.

Electricity sensors

The complex equipment that is used for electric current measurements can also be replaced by compact sensors. Some of the most accurate current measurement sensors were released by Texas Instruments in 2020. They are the first electric current sensors that use the Hall effect, which allows for the lowest drift and high accuracy, regardless of temperature conditions. These m2m sensors can take measurements in complex conditions from -40 to 257 degrees Fahrenheit. High-voltage systems such as industrial motor drives, solar inverters, energy storage equipment, and power supplies can be easily equipped with such sensors, providing accurate and safe monitoring conditions.

Inclination sensors

For mining, construction, and automotive industries, in which the angle of inclination to the vertical is critical, the EIoT market offers some innovations too. Pepperl + Fuchs Vertrieb has developed F199 inclination sensors which can measure angles with a resolution of less than 0.01° and absolute accuracy of ± 0.15°. 

For dynamic inclination sensing, Murata Manufacturing has developed a new MEMS inertial sensor, the SCHA63T, which is a single package, six degrees of freedom (6DoF) component. This allows it to provide settings in all measurement axes, which greatly simplifies the manufacturing process. In addition, the sensor supports GNSS positioning. The device can provide centimeter-level accuracy in machine dynamics and position sensing, and can assist in ensuring safe, robust, and verified design activities.

Object detection sensors

When monitoring dangerous areas on the Enterprise, especially where external people or objects should not be present, companies often use IoT solutions that include cameras, microphones, or GPS to ensure security.

The Mimic Go sensor, developed by Mimiq, can detect changes in the environment using an accelerometer, magnetometer, data about current temperature, and a motion sensor that can identify some specific objects in that area. With its help, you can get information about the nature of the object, and detect a possible threat to the production process. As soon as it detects an extraneous object, the sensor immediately sends a signal to the production operator. Connecting this sensor with other IoT components would make it easier to identify extraneous objects, and solve the corresponding problems immediately.

Battery-less sensors

Another impressive breakthrough of the last year is the battery-less sensors developed by Everactive. They were implemented at the Hershey Company plant where they have proved their effectiveness. The company estimated they were able to save several thousand dollars in steam system savings after two months of using battery-less sensors thanks  to their lower power consumption. The functionality of these IoT sensors satisfied the majority of industrial requirements for measurements, providing temperature, humidity, light, vibration, acceleration, acoustic, pressure, and even various gases sensing. In addition, battery-less m2m sensors can be deployed at a larger scale in comparison with battery-powered ones.

Sounds like a global breakthrough, right? Maybe, this battery-less technology will become the basis of the future EIoT — battery-less EIoT.

IoT sensor chips

Sensors used in EIoT are becoming more advanced thanks to the new generation of chips implemented in them. For example, Qualcomm released 7 new chips that can satisfy the demand of companies from various industries, providing them with new opportunities for visually monitoring their assets. Some of these chips support ultra-high resolution cameras, as well as panning, tilting, and zooming activities.

The high-end chip, named Qualcomm QCS8250, can be implemented in a sensor that is capable of launching robots that operate, for instance, in warehouses. The most impressive thing here is that performing these operations requires ever smaller-sized devices.

High-level chips are capable of supporting resource-intensive IoT applications which control smart cameras, video collaboration, and AI hubs. They can do this thanks to a new neural processing unit for ultra-intuitive artificial intelligence and machine learning.

How to choose IoT sensors for the Enterprise?

Even after identifying its business needs, a company’s process for choosing suitable IoT sensors might not be as simple as it seems. Turning a traditional factory into an Industry 4.0 Enterprise, it is necessary to consider not only the advantages of the sensors themselves, but also more practical things. Manufacturing companies should equip lots of machines with sensors, which work in different conditions, perform various functions, and have various levels of depreciation. The IoT product should help to improve the efficiency of the Enterprise.

Do IoT sensors affect the achievement of a company's business goals? There is no direct correlation here, but we can build the following chain between IoT sensors and business goals: 

So, if a company wants to build a robust business strategy, it should analyze a large amount of data collected by sensors. If it gathers data incorrectly, the strategy will be not optimal and less useful compared to a situation where data is collected with the highest possible accuracy.

To determine the qualities that m2m sensors should have in your factory, you can answer these questions:

  • How much power does the sensor consume?
  • Is it easy to install?
  • How versatile is it in form and functions?
  • How much does it cost?

When choosing sensors for industrial use, pay attention to their physical reliability. Find out if they are flexible enough to perform their functions in various environments. This means the sensors’ ability to work, for example, on premises with very different temperatures. Pay attention to the versatility of the IoT sensor’s platform too, because it provides the global interoperability of the sensor. Above all, make sure you are going to apply the device correctly.

After implementing the sensors, you can provide the corresponding protection from physical obstacles and electromagnetic interference, making sure that your wireless network has a long-range and frequency-hopping spread spectrum (FHSS).

Next, decide what level of sensor accuracy is needed for the manufacturing process. For instance, if the goal is to monitor the temperature to ensure comfortable working conditions of employees in the factory, it would not be a big deal to have an error of a few tenths of a degree. While in a biochemical laboratory, even the smallest change of temperature is critical for the operation of processes. 

As part of the IoT ecosystem, a sensor can transmit critical data that can be strategically important to the company. This means that you should take care of its security, because hackers can gain access to the entire system through one sensor. So, check its security and the encryption standards it uses to transmit data before introducing a sensor into your IoT ecosystem. To provide additional security, you can add a layer of authentication to the solution.

Also, it is crucial to know how long the sensor can potentially work. If possible, find out how the performance of a device changes over time, and whether these changes depend on the working environment. You can also use the latest battery technologies to extend the life of your devices, such as solid state batteries. Sensors working only during data transmission activities will typically require less power. In those cases, sensors can operate on battery power for more than 10 years.

The last critical point is that you need to fit this into your budget. A sensor can be a relatively inexpensive device, but by deploying the IoT ecosystem on the whole Enterprise, you may need more than a hundred of these devices. So, the company should be ready to spend a considerable sum of money only on these “things”, depending on what type of EIoT solution is being implemented.

Additionally, think about whether the sensor can be reused, what infrastructure is needed for its usage, and how easy it is to maintain the sensor’s operating conditions.

Whatever you do, don't choose solutions that haven’t been tested on the company's premises.

Conclusion

Thanks to IoT developing at a rapid pace, devices, including sensors, are becoming more affordable, and the entire ecosystem has gotten smarter.

These results allow businesses to satisfy more specific needs according to their manufacturing process, as well as to take measurements in complex conditions. For instance, they can monitor object movement, measure the distance to difficult-to-reach objects using ultrasound, and be connected to potentially dangerous equipment, providing data collection. Some complex, bulky measurement equipment can be replaced with modern small sensors, which can rapidly transmit the data.

To select any IoT solution, including sensors, for deploying an IoT ecosystem on the Enterprise, PSA advises you to identify any gaps in the current manufacturing process and to find solutions to solve them.

At this stage, given the plethora of criteria that must be taken into account to choose optimal sensors, a reliable IoT partner can be a great help to identify all the fine details and to create a plan for overall IoT ecosystem implementation. 

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