If you tell people that exterminators use temperature sensors to eliminate bedbugs, it prompts questions, and people want to know more. You can get the same reaction when you mention that landfill, entomology labs, and banana-ripening managers use sensor data to automate and optimize their operations.

That’s how it goes when you talk about sensors and the whole gamut of applications where they’re in play — from analyzing COVID-19 vaccine storage temperature to monitoring water temperatures in exotic fish farms. These sometimes strange-sounding sensor applications owe much of their success to the people who make the Internet of Things (IoT) happen.

Don’t Miss Fast-Evolving IoT Sensor Applications

Everyone from engineers to business managers to production line workers can turn their innovative sensor application ideas into powerful IoT solutions. It can be easy to overlook many IoT technologies because they develop, go to market quickly, and often work behind the scenes.

Sensors help produce industry-transformative innovations and streamline business-critical activities, all with a favorable ROI. There’s a sensor to measure nearly everything — temperature, humidity, vibration, pressure, air quality, power use, motion, water, and many more. You can see IoT sensors at work predicting machine maintenance, optimizing field services, boosting utility efficiency, generating precision irrigation, keeping vaccines viable, automating factory production, and on and on.

Most IoT sensor applications or use cases start with someone simply questioning, “How can we use the IoT to solve this problem?” Or, more creatively asking, “How can we get this thing to talk to us?” Then, it’s off to the races to engineer the best IoT sensors for data-driven solutions. That’s what sensors do for us — they make things that matter, talk. Sensors deliver the actionable data that helps us solve a whole range of problems in any industry.

Sensors Make the IoT Work for You

You could make a case that sensors are the essential (and often overlooked) variable in the IoT equation. To make the IoT work, you need to sense something.

Yes, you need the multiplying effect of connectivity from a sensor to a gateway to the cloud for data analytics. But it’s the sensing, the measuring, the monitoring that makes industry applications intelligent and innovative. Sensors make the IoT come alive for business.

Figure 2. Sensors mounted on machines provide useful feedback. (Photo courtesy of Monnit Corporation)

Before we used the term — IoT — in everyday conversation, we talked about embedded systems or machine-to-machine (M2M) communications and put them to work in many industries. It’s now the era of Industry 4.0, where we see amazing automation using ongoing IoT advancements for rapid data processing and analytics.

This promising revolution supports many new IoT sensor applications for businesses ready to reap the combined benefits of both the ubiquitous IoT and the Industrial IoT (IIoT). The increasing popularity of Industry 4.0 and IIoT applications and the rising demand for automation and robotics are driving exponential growth in the sensors marketplace.

But Not Just Any Sensor Will Do

The sensors making the most significant impact are built on agile platforms and are effective in multiple environments — enterprise, commercial, and industrial. When you have a versatile sensor platform, you have global interoperability. With a long-range, multi-frequency radio and a flexible microcontroller, you can quickly deploy a sensor for virtually any industry application.

As digital control systems advance and increase overall proficiency, users demand advancements in sensor reliability, reach, response time, power, survivability, ease of integration, and communication capabilities. Ultimately, an ideal sensor’s main features are:

  • Ease of installation and use

  • Low power

  • Versatile form and function

  • Inexpensive

Sensors must be easy to install and use in a wide variety of environments and situations. It’s ideal for sensor setup to take about 15 minutes and be as simple as:

  • Attach it to or near what you wish to control or monitor.

  • Connect it to a power source and turn it on.

  • Quickly configure it using a smartphone or computer.

A sensor that’s only running when it must communicate requires the least power. This is how sensors can achieve 10+ years of battery life. Other ways to extend battery life — even for the most power-hungry sensors — is to use the latest battery technology or ambient energy harvesting technologies like solar and piezoelectricity, or even a combination of the two.

Far-reaching wireless range and the Frequency-Hopping Spread Spectrum (FHSS) can significantly amplify a sensor’s reliability. It’ll have stronger impairment immunity from physical obstructions, external wireless radio frequency systems, and electromagnetic interference (EMI).

Figure 3. Valuable data-driven decisions come from an end-to-end remote monitoring platform — from sensor to gateway to cloud. (Photo courtesy of Monnit Corporation)

A sensor’s physical robustness is critical. Is it flexible enough to be placed in multiple environments, handle many different industrial applications, manage a wide variety of complications, and still gather, store, and send you the critical data you need? Plus, a robust sensor provides the least expensive and best kind of insurance — prevention. Sensors can help prevent problems like facility and product damage or asset downtime. They allow you to detect when a system or machine is starting to fail and the problem is still inexpensive to address.

Keep Sensor Data Safe By Eliminating Risk

Are your sensors unhackable? Sensor systems that include encryption functions using the Diffie-Hellman key exchange algorithm and 128-bit Advanced Encryption Standard (AES-128) Cipher Block Chaining (CBC) symmetric key encryption can protect transmitted data from breaches. And to protect web servers and browsers connected to a sensor network, you can use Transport Layer Security (TLS) encryption.

On top of these data encryption standards, sensors need an added security layer. For complete security, you can add an authentication layer for more protection during data generation and all the way to its consumption with 256-bit Secure Hash Algorithm 3 (SHA-3).

The 256-bit SHA-3 authentication can safeguard your sensor data with a unique global key or fingerprint. This data authentication includes source-generated data verification at the software or application layer. So, when the sensor sends data, its companion is an automatically generated authentication token. And when software receives the data, the token gets analyzed through a cryptographic hash function with a custom sensor secret key. This way, security is sustained at all communication points, for example, between sensor, gateway, network, network controller, and the cloud.

Ultimately, these encryption and authentication layers combine to create a strong sensor security platform. If your sensors are all locked up within an end-to-end IoT data security platform like this — all the better.

The Boom Of Sensors Is a Boon to Data-Driven Decisions

With the increasing growth of sensors turning into billions of connected devices, companies could easily get overwhelmed with billions if not more data points. Whether your sensors transmit data only periodically when parameters change or in real-time streams for processing in a data center, the cloud, or at your network’s edge, you need a versatile software platform to make sense of the potentially unprecedented amount of data.

The main benefits of sensors come not only in their data gathering capabilities but also in their activation of agile data analysis. The combination of sensor management, data aggregation and storage, and alerts into one cloud-based or on-premises platform with customizable APIs for analytics software integration can be the key to making fast data-driven decisions.

Forecasting the Future: It’s Bright for Sensors.

The sensors that engineers envision today will evolve to help create new and refined ideas for future applications. As we’ve seen, the once futuristic technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and the spectrum of realities — virtual, augmented, and mixed — are entering the mainstream in many facets of our work and personal lives.

Sensors play a pivotal part in the applications of these advancements. And sensors will help feed the near future’s ultra-fast data processing and analytics fueled by 5G, AI, computer vision, sensor fusion, and multi-access edge computing. It’s easy to predict that sensors will keep evolving for use in as yet unthought of applications because of these innovations and the growth of everything from smart cities to smart factories to smart cars.

  • Flexible plug and play sensors will set new form and function standards even beyond a combination sensor that just measures two parameters, for example, soil moisture and temperature.

  • Innovations will come as we continue to sense many conditions with one versatile sensor system for many remote monitoring solutions.

  • Industrial control automation powered by sensors and AI will continue to create innovative opportunities to advance manufacturing processes.

  • Satellite communications and GPS advancements will combine to improve how sensors monitor assets in ultra-remote locations.

  • Sensor energy sourcing will improve with battery advancements and self-powered or energy harvesting options.

  • As sensors go on to be more fully integrated into wireless networks and replace hardware configurations, we’ll see reductions in costs and power consumption.

You can count on sensors to continually transform this Industry 4.0 era and beyond.

This article was written by Brad Walters, Founder and CEO of Monnit. For more information, contact Mr. Walters at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., or visit here .


Sensor Technology Magazine

This article first appeared in the June, 2021 issue of Sensor Technology Magazine.

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