In the United Kingdom, pregnant cows may now be better protected, thanks to sensors. A bright green sensor device strapped to a cow’s tail alerts farmers, through an Internet of Things (IoT) network, that the cow is close to giving birth. This allows farmers to help the cow or intervene with a veterinarian. It is expected to spare the lives of more than 100,000 calves and about 50,000 cows each year.

As unexpected as the application may seem, this technology is solving problems for people around the world. And it’s only the beginning.

Opportunity awaits

BCC Research expects double-digit growth in the sensors market in the near term; the global market for sensors should reach $240.3 billion in 2021. This is up from about $123.5 billion in 2016. The compound annual growth rate is forecast to be 15.9 percent.

Such growth will be driven by sensors used with mobile technology, a spurt in machinery, equipment and process equipment growth, and the use of sensors in manufacturing production and fabrication. Sensors are proving to reduce cost in manufacturing and production, and this continues to boost sensor demand while stimulating development for this technology with regard to their reliability and attributes. Electrical contractors will be called on to select, install and replace sensors. 

When it comes to key considerations in sensor attributes, given their growing widespread use in the age of the IoT, several things come to mind, said Alexander M. Wyglinski, associate professor, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Worcester (Mass.) Polytechnic Institute, and senior member at the IEEE. He singles out cost, resolution and power consumption. 

In the future, there should be a huge population of sensors. They will be ubiquitous, measure many variables and provide an accurate gauge of many things in the environment within which they operate. It’s important that they are reasonably priced, have a long life and accurately gather data.

“If we are going to deploy lots of these devices, making sure that the cost of the device is sufficiently low is important,” Wyglinski said. “Since these devices may not have access to a guaranteed power source, such as an outlet, they will most likely be powered by a battery, hence the need for these devices to possess low power-consumption characteristics.”

Data accuracy

Having a distributed network of sensors to provide meaningful surveillance is valuable, but the data must be accurately gathered and conveyed without interruption. If the remote data doesn’t match the local, real data, you have a problem. You could also have a problem if the server that transmits the data is intermittent or unreliable.

“Quality of the data being measured by these devices, whether it is a temperature reading from a refrigerator or a passive infrared sensor of a security system, is an important attribute to consider,” Wyglinski said. “We don’t want our ice cream to melt, and we definitely don’t want any false alarms at home.”

Looking ahead

Accurate data and its granularity can be used to change lives in many ways. With quality, cost and reliability in sync, sensors and their applications are generating great appeal because of what they can do.

Take, for example, what a consortium of university researchers funded by the National Science Foundation experimented with when they used sensors to control a lighting system in a hospital room in New Mexico, and a conference room at one of the participating universities. The intensity and availability of light is being controlled with sensors to impact seasonal affective disorders. The amount of light and its color temperature affects the circadian rhythms of inhabitants, which, in turn, affects mood. “Time-of-flight” sensors detect presence and movement, combined with other factors to control light. Believe it or not, such an arrangement can impact the incidence of depression.

With so much potential, the future of sensors—plus their underlying technology and attributes—simply cannot be ignored. Looking ahead, the challenge for ECs will be staying abreast of the changing technology of sensors and the benefit they provide. More important, they will play an important role in advising their customers of the merits and shortfalls of a particular sensor in a particular application. Understanding the economics of sensors as well as their long-standing use will be valuable to customers and opportunistic for ECs.

“Contractors need to consider the trade-off space between accuracy [or] resolution, cost and power consumption,” Wyglinski said. “In most cases, one will not produce a system that has the best of all three. Somewhere, one requirement will conflict with the other two.”