The main types of IoT sensors in the market today

As the IoT market continues to grow, new kinds of sensors and ways to utilise and drive value from them are frequently coming to fruition. This has resulted in more and more sectors investing in the space to drive further value from data more efficiently.

“There is a plethora of devices in the market, most of which have existed before the term IoT was coined,” said Hassan Sherbaz, IoT solutions architect at Connexin.

“Anything which can be measured from air quality to particulate contamination of diesel, to footfall in a town centre, has probably been around for decades. This is because the physical measuring principles were developed, but the benefit of IoT is the drop in price of semiconductors which makes measuring such variables much more affordable.

“Couple that with advances in low power communication networks and denser batteries, deploying sensors becomes a much more cost effective business case.”

In this explore, we take a look at the different types of IoT sensors that are present in the market today, and what they entail for businesses.

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Individual vs system sensors

IoT sensors have proved useful for individuals, as well as ultilisation across company networks, allowing for fast, clear and accurate delivery of data in both scenarios.

“Sensors, in all their forms, are playing a pivotal role in enabling peak asset performance across all IoT applications. They provide a direct line of sight into everything happening in our spaces,” explained Hugues Meyrath, chief product officer at ServiceChannel.

Meyrath believes that IoT needs to be considered in two parts:

  1. Individual sensors: “These provide specific information through single purpose sensors: temperature, humidity, CO2, air quality, pressure, vibrations, and presence people in a room.”
  2. A “system to call home”: “This includes HVAC unit, energy monitoring, lighting system, and ovens. In this context, the system generates alerts that can take into account not just one sensor or multiple sensors, it can also report on its health which is a combination of things. That’s where it becomes more interesting.

“The key difference is that for type 1 you report that temperature is too hot. But for type 2, you could suggest a course of action and part to be replaced.”

Spectrum network growth

In recent times, network operators have been looking to improve their spectrum network coverage, which has decreased strain on solution providers and allows them to spend more time on offering more personalised sensor technology, in line with customer needs.

“Network operators are growing their coverage for unlicensed spectrum (LoRaWAN/Sigfox) and licensed spectrum (NB-IoT/LTE-M) IoT networks,” commented Sherbaz.

“This means that solution providers can focus on obtaining the right sensor and building the right application for the end customer, without having to worry about managing the network.”

Connexin, for example, offers this infrastructure as LoRaWAN-as-a-Service. Using this kind of tech, solution providers can leverage the networks to focus on delivering outcomes through IoT. This has been disrupting an array of verticals, including healthcare, utilities and the public sector.

The company’s IoT solutions director, Sherbaz, continued: “Connexin also acts a solution provider, using its own network to deliver sensors, connectivity, platform and outcomes.

“For example, by bringing LoRaWAN connectivity to Sheffield, Yorkshire Water saved 90,000 litres of water per day, by deploying smart water meters at 1000 properties.”

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Sizes and applications

IoT sensors are now available in a variety of sizes, as well, allowing for more portability and increased ease of use. This, in turn, has played a key role in establishing new use cases, which have entered various industries.

“Sensors have developed from electro mechanical devices, to micro electro mechanical devices (MEMS), to nano electro mechanical devices (NEMS) and now Bio-MEMS, which can sense molecular level changes,” said Deepak Parameswaran, chief business officer for Industry NxT at Mindtree.

While the technological capabilities of IoT sensors have transformed, the application specific sensor now, according to Parameswaran, spans across almost every sector, including:

  • Consumer devices: Location, proximity, orientation and many other environmental parameter sensors.
  • Healthcare: Non-invasive trackers, wearables and invasive VIVO sensors, which can detect cardiac damage and mutated cells.
  • Automotive: “Today, almost every aspect of cars are monitored and measured using IoT sensors. From speed to fuel levels, break-pad damage to the minutest of the vibrations. Both V2V (Vehicle to Vehicle) and V2I (Vehicle to Infrastructure) are currently using technologies like Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR), which is the most recent evolution of remote sensing. The most prominent use case and recent trend in the market is the self-driving car, or autonomous vehicle, wherein IoT sensors replicate the eyes and ears of a driver.”
  • Process Manufacturing (Chemicals, Oil and Gas): “These are the early adopters of the sensor technologies, precision measurements of physical parameters like temperature, pressure, viscosity, flow, mass are enabled by sensors.”

GPS trackers

Another important kind of IoT sensor to consider is the GPS tracker. From public transport to private vehicles, as well as within transport and logistics, GPS trackers are useful for informing users of location.

“The main types of sensors we are seeing in the IoT market, in terms of demand and supply, are GPS trackers,” said Aliaksandr Kuushynau, head of the Wialon division at Gurtam.

“By tracking ‘things’ – whether that’s fleet or logistics vehicles, or public transport, or agricultural ‘things’ like machinery or animals – businesses and individuals are able to identify efficiencies and monitor safety more effectively than ever before.

“Sensors are imperative for feeding back critical data which can be analysed, and subsequently actioned. For example, data can be used by companies to plan, record and control expenditure around equipment maintenance. And it can be used to control crop rotation and calculate fuel consumption for more efficient ways of working.”

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Sensors for manufacturing

Manufacturing is another industry with plenty of use cases for IoT sensor technology, as well as much potential going forward. With the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) aiding innovation in a sector that’s been otherwise slower to adopt digital processes, this trend is showing no signs of slowing down.

Richard Simmons, group vice-president of technology – IoT at Logicalis Group, explained: “One of our customers had dedicated employees to go around with clipboards and climb up cranes and large, often dangerous, equipment just to write down how long it was used for. Then they go back to their office and record it.

“Integrating an IoT sensor brings connectivity to the crane. The sensor collects the information and directly records how long it was used, automatically logging the information on the IT system. Once you have this type of visibility, more advanced sensors can subsequently monitor and provide predictive maintenance. It’s simple but drives productivity alongside better-protecting employees – a key element for a majority of the market from our experience.

“Manufacturers are also building new products with sensors already embedded within them. For many of our customers this leads to a combination of newer assets, with sensors managed by the OEM that has made the equipment they are using, and older versions where they are retro-fitting sensors to them with a view to making them smarter. It’s one of the main reasons it becomes complicated as it is unlikely a customer will buy all their equipment from one supplier, and unlikely that they will be able to refresh all equipment at same time. They end up with many sensors from many different suppliers and that can be a risk.”

Considering customer use cases

Finally, it’s important to keep in mind that when planning a digital transformation journey such as IoT adoption, organisations must place clear business goals at the forefront of their agenda.

“Specific sensors that are incorporated into IoT devices are relatively varied, but will entirely depend on the customer’s use case, including the parameters that they are trying to monitor, and the data they are trying to collect and operationalise,” said Nick Earle, CEO of Eseye.

“Examples of the sensors currently available can measure everything from location, temperature, humidity, pressure, access control and security, provide real-time video, personal identification, and more.

“As the number of parameters continues to increase, this also places the onus on factors such as device security design, and prototyping. It also emphasises the need to work with providers that have a thorough understanding of how to best integrate the device back to the customers’ environment, and whether the sensors can reliably transmit data back to the customer, regardless of where it’s located globally.”

Costa Coffee: a case study in retail

“A good real-world example is Eseye’s work with Costa Coffee,” Earle added. “With approximately 90 sensor measurements for each drink dispensed by its Costa Express machines, including the ability to measure coffee bean and liquid levels, cup proximity, temperature, and usage and customer behavioural data, Costa is using IoT to distil the coffee shop experience into a machine that can deliver a highly personalised customer experience, anywhere.

“Data from these sensors is collected at the source and transmitted back to the enterprise for analysis, helping with predictive maintenance scheduling that reduces engineer call outs and saves money, whilst improving supply chain efficiency. This data can also be fed through to suppliers, helping them to know when items are low, helping to invoke SLAs on when these need to be refilled, and avoiding wastage of precious consumables that can have an impact on the balance sheet.”

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Aaron Hurst

Aaron Hurst is Information Age's senior reporter, providing news and features around the hottest trends across the tech industry.