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An overview of IoT sensor types and challenges

IT teams responsible for IoT deployments must understand the different types of IoT sensors, how they work and what challenges they bring to the table.

Sensors are at the heart of IoT product design. They collect data so smart devices can function and recalibrate.

Sensors are devices that detect and respond to changes in an environment. They receive data from a variety of sources, such as temperature meters, and process environmental inputs from changes in motion and pressure. A sensor converts a physical phenomenon, such as a sudden rise in temperature in a data center, into a digital signal. That signal is then converted into a readable format that a human or machine can interpret and act on. For example, sensors in containers on trucks and trains monitor temperature and humidity and alert retailers to any environmental changes that could affect perishable foods.

To oversee and support IoT deployments, IT teams should understand the various types of IoT sensors, the data collection process and potential challenges related to hardware failures, security and a lack of standardization.

Types of sensors and the data they collect

All sensors are positioned at the frontend of IoT networks so they can collect data that crosses those networks. Sensors vary in design depending on their specific purpose.

For example, sensors can function in either digital or analog mode. Digital sensors interact directly with an IoT microcontroller. If an application requires an analog sensor, the data gathered by that sensor must be converted into a digital format, creating an extra step in the process.

Sensors are further differentiated based on the work they perform. For instance, some sensors detect pressure changes in vehicles, aircraft or closed-end manufacturing and laboratory environments. Other sensors are embedded in smartphones or vehicles to detect the orientation of an object as well as motions, such as shaking, tapping, tilting, positioning and vibrating.

How sensors collect and report data

Sensors collect and send data in a variety of ways depending on how IoT developers define these processes.

In some cases, sensors collect data in a binary format. In other cases, data might be a string of text. Alternatively, some sensors collect analog data that needs to be converted into a digital format before a network and applications can process it.

After a sensor collects data, that data moves to a network through an IoT gateway or edge device. The network then forwards data to the cloud or an on-premises processing engine for analytics and outputs, such as alerts.

Current challenges with IoT sensors

Organizations must realign their workforce to install and maintain the health of end-to-end IoT systems. This includes sensors. Most organizations assign IoT installations and maintenance to IT teams. Here are six key challenges IT teams face:

Sensor failures

When on-premises IoT sensors fail, IT teams can easily replace them. Sensors that are widely distributed in the field are more problematic, however.

There are two ways to remedy a failed sensor: replace it or recalibrate it. Network software can predict sensor failure, but IT staff must still visit the field to perform maintenance.

Environmental noise

Some sensors work inconsistently in different environmental conditions. Sensors on autonomous vehicles are one example. In winter conditions, ice and snow can block a car's safety sensors, rendering systems such as forward-collision warning and automatic emergency braking inoperable. In other cases, sensor seals can't withstand the material contraction that occurs at low temperatures. This allows moisture to get into the sensor, and the sensor fails. IT teams must devise maintenance strategies that account for different environmental conditions.

Battery failures

Sensor batteries can fail. Some manufacturers design sensors to enter "sleep mode" when the device isn't actively working. This conserves battery power, but it still doesn't eliminate the need to replace old batteries.

Lack of uniform data and connectivity standards

The data sensors collect and the connectivity standards sensors use vary widely. This can present challenges when IT teams must integrate sensors into existing gateways and networks.

Security

IoT devices and sensors present unique security challenges. Most manufacturers, for example, sell devices with the same default passwords and settings. This can create major vulnerabilities in network edge and IoT deployments. IT must re-program incoming sensors and IoT devices so they conform to internal security and governance standards. Otherwise, the door is open to bad actors.

Sensor recalibration

When sensors produce data that is suspect, they may need be recalibrated. To recalibrate a sensor, IT teams compare current sensor readings to past benchmarks. Then they perform offset adjustments to get readings get back on track. Admins must be trained on this process, which should be incorporated into network maintenance procedures.

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