IoT Sensors: The Eyes and Ears of Internet of Things

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IoT Sensors: The Eyes and Ears of Internet of Things

IoT sensors typically transform physical values into electric signals. As they get smarter, the latest generation of sensors are helping to make machines cheaper, safer and more powerful than ever, and they allow them to hook up directly to the Cloud. In the process, they will transform and revolutionize entire industries and business models – and that’s just for starters!

by Bernd Schöne

The future of computing will see information flowing constantly from the real world into the Cloud and back. That, at least, is what leading experts have believed now for a number of years. But as always when a major paradigm shift happens, the devil is lurking in the details

Sensors, for instance, have traditionally lacked a direct connection to the Internet. While a sensor may register the temperature of a cylinder head and be able to transmit that data to an engine control system, the latest models can do much more: through a direct link to the Cloud they can deliver feedback directly to the car’s manufacturer who can take action immediately, for instance by sending the driver a message to stop by the nearest garage, or even to pull over at once and wait for a maintenance technician (or the tow truck) to arrivebecause some essential part is about to fail.

The number of sensors needed to create the Internet of Things is mindboggling. Gartner, an analyst company, estimate that some 26 billion smart sensors will be installed by 2020 in anything from cars to conveyor belts, from buildings to bridges, from road signs to refrigerators, from test beds to toasters. Garbage bins will know when they need to be emptied; air conditioners will check the local weather forecast to determine when they need to start cooling down or heating up. “There’s no limit to the number of things Smart Sensors will be able to do”, says Dr. Markus Schwaderlapp, head of R&D at Deutz, an engine manufacturer. He remembers the early days when the dernier cri of sensoring was a temperature feeler in a car’s front bumper that triggered a red warning light when temperatures fell below freezing. In those days, conscientious drivers regularly checked their oil levels and tire pressures before setting off on a lengthy journey.
Today, sensors take care of all of that, telling us to within a tenth of a degree exactly how hot or cold it is outside. “Our heavy diesels contain more than 30 of them, each responsible for continuously monitoring vital engine functions and the exhaust system”, Schwaderlapp maintains.
Smart Sensors are increasingly viewed not as an extra, but as essential. Prof. Peter Gutzmer, CTO and a board member at Schaeffler Group, says that rolling bearings in hi-speed trains in China are required to include sensorsthat are able control vibration, acceleration and lubrication.

The number of sensors needed to create the Internet of Things is mind-boggling. Some 26 billion smart sensors will be installed by 2020



“The Chinese are taking the lead here”, Gutzmer says: by 2020 all such bearings will need to be retrofitted with the appropriate sensors to fulfill regulatory mandates because they not only keep the trains running smoothly; they also help detect faulty sections of tracks.
Gartner forecasts that some 26 billion devices and machines will be connected to the Internet of Things by 2020 alone. Add to that some seven billion PCs, laptops and smartphones, and the dimension of the problem becomes clear. Unlike The UK and France, Germany has been slow to transfer its industrial production to offshore locations such as China or Southeast Asia. The traditional German “Mittelstand”, most of the small and medium-sized companies, including many “hidden champions” with substantial market shares in their narrowly defined sectors, still make highly specialized machines and tools that command premium prices. They are looking to cash in on the expected windfalls that IoT will bring, but are averse to taking big financial risks. Smart Sensors, they believe, will enable them to maintain the high standards of engineering and quality the label “made in Germany” implies, while adding new productivity gains and thus ensuring that they receive top dollar for their goods.
Large multinational corporations have, for the most part, already successfully transitioned to smart sensors. ABB, a huge Swiss technology conglomerate, offer electric motors that are equipped with extensive self-monitoring functions and sensors that report back to the manufacturer every time a device show signs of malfunctioning; thanks to predictive maintenance, engine downtime is virtually a thing of the past.


IoT Sensors: Schaeffler 00098E17

Gearing up for success
Machine tool makers expect to add new productivity gains to existing products hrough the use of Smart Sensors,thus ensuring they get top dollar for their goods


The Smart Sensors installed in ABB’s motors monitor such parameters as vibration, temperature and load which are constantly compared with the desired values. Communication between the motors and the company’s cloud-based computer systems is achieved through wireless networks; data are encrypted in real time. According to ABB this results in up to 70 percent less down time, while a motor’s useful lifespan can be increased by roughly a third. Energy consumption is also reduced by about ten percent. ABB promises its customers a return on their investment in new, sensor-equipped technology within one year.

There‘s no limit to the number of things smart sensors will be able to do

Dr. Markus Schwaderlapp
Head of R&D, Deutz

Today, such calculations can only be performed reliably for relatively large and expensive machines since the price of the necessary intelligent, WiFi-equipped sensors is relatively high compared with their “dumb” predecessors. In addition, these sensors often need to be protected against unfavorable environments and working conditions through expensive shock absorbers or temperature-resistant housingsWhile the business side tends to focus on the value of the data collected through smart sensors, engineers are more excited about being able to anticipate undesirable events such as breakage or excessive wear and tear. By comparing measurement values gathered from similar machines, computer algorithms are becoming increasingly adept at anticipating glitches and scheduling maintenance tasks well ahead any undesirable occurrence. “Predictive maintenance is the killer application for smart sensors” says Prof. Michael Beigl who heads the department for Purvasive Computing at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT).
Beigl and his students have been working with smart sensors for years, and he envisions other important uses for them, for instance in monitoring environmental effects such as particle density. “Extremely fine dust particles behave differently than gases that tend to dissipate more quickly. By measuring the particle density over a wide area, using lots of monitoring stations equipped Smart Sensors, we are better able than before to pinpoint the source of contamination”, he says. His system consists of several dozen small, low-power sensors that use Bluetooth in the smartphones of people passing by to essentially hitch a ride home to the servers that do the actual work of evaluating the data.

From the Industry

Moving from Dumb Parts to “Genius” IoT Sensors

They go by such exotic names as “Negative Temperature Coefficient Thermistors” (NTC) or “Light Dependent Resistors” (LDR), and every electronics technicians knows them well. Their job is to measure temperature or light through the changing electrical resistance in their parts. In the old days of analog systems, the results usually had to be read off of some kind of graph or scale. Today, their digital descendants are connected to sensors that transfer the data digitally via a computer bus directly to a server. But the latest generation Smart Sensors can do more than that: thanks to on-board microprocessors they are able, for instance, to detect noise signals and reduce the flow of data and power consumption to the lowest possible levels. The logical next step will be to move the processing owner directly to the sensor by placing the sensor along with the necessary processor and storage on the same chip. Once out of the laboratory these supersmart sensors will themselves be a part of the Internet of Things, increasing the scope and power of IoT by orders of magnitude. Stay tuned for new developments by companies like Samsung, Toshiba or Infineon who are all working on next-gen “genius sensors”.

Setting Standards for Smart Chips

The German industry is getting serious about “Industrie 4.0”, as the Industrial Internet is called in that country. At the recent Hanover Industrial Fair, a group consisting of virtually all the major industry associations involved in manufacture and electronics got together to found the “Standardization Council Industrie 4.0” which will be tasked with helping to create national and international standards and reference architectures for IoT applications. Recognizing that Germany lags behind others in IoT readiness, the Council will seek to establish working groups with associations in other European countries to create a counterbalance to U.S. domination in this field. Members include the Society of German Engineers (VDE), the IT industry association Bitkom, as well as the Electronics Industry Association ZVEI and the standards body DIN.


Smart Sensors with wireless capability use a wide range of communications standards such as RFID, WLAN, NFC (Near Field Communications), Bluetooth or Zigbee to keep in touch. Scientists at the Fraunhofer Institute IPMS in Dresden have developed tiny sensors that can be attached directly to electric wires, where they siphon off the energy they need to do their job, which is to monitor the temperature of the wires themselves and send the information to a central server via RFID. The technology is installed in enclosures where they can warn of possible overload.
The simplest way of building IoT applications for legacy equipment is by installing short-distance, low-power sensors that can use existing connections to access the cloud, says Dr.Michael Scholles, who also works for Fraunhofer’s IPMS. According to him, the high cost of more powerful Smart Sensors is still prohibitive in many cases, but they are necessary for most high-value projects in the realm of IoT. “We need to see a substantial reduction in sensors’ prices sometime soon”, he believes. Since wafer space in semiconductor manufacturing is limited, the best way to make sensors cheaper, he believes, is to reduce their size so you can fit more them on each substrate. Adding extra technology to the silicon is not the best idea, hethinks; a better way would be to try and combine existing chips in order to avoid the high costs of developing new ones. Dr. Gunther Kegel, the vice president of the German Engineering Society (VDE) and CEO of Peperl+Fuchs, an SME specializing in factory automation systems, agrees. “The large investment necessary to create more highly integrated chips is self-defeating”, he believes. His solution is to “borrow” existing technology from other fields.

In order to be integrated into complex manufacturing processes, smart sensors need to be easily customized

Prof. Michael Beigl
Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT)

“Sensors can be made universally adaptable”, says KIT’s Prof. Beigl, “the subsequent production steps can’t.” In order to be integrated into complex manufacturing processes, systems need to be easily customized. And in order to keep the number-crunching costs as low as possible, reference architectures and know-how transfer will be necessary, he believes, if SMEs are to be able to become the future champions in a world of IoT. If not, they will be priced out of the market.

IoT Sensors Info Graphic Keeping in Touch

Keeping in touch
Smart sensors with wireless capability use a wide range of communications standards tcommunicate with other applications via the Cloud

Security is the other big issue companies worry about when considering whether to move to Smart Sensors. This is especially true for smaller companies, especially since most sensors are manufactured in the Far East or in America where data protection and privacy rules are perceived as less strict than in Europe. They fear that the quality of their products could sink and they themselves be swamped by legal suits brought against them by irate customers. “IoT must be fully protected against shoddy sensors and manipulated data”, says Oliver Winzenried, CEO of Wibu Systems, a cybersecurity company. Sensors should be able to auhenticate themselves, he believes, automatically providing proof of their origin and the integrity of their data transmission systems. Appropriate symmetrical and asymmetrical encryption solutions are available today, he maintains, but sensor manufacturers often fail to use them due to cost concerns. The best way to go about, Winzenried feels, is to move the authentication and security functions to a separate chip, which shouldn’t cost more than 10 Cents or so. Even cheaper are pure software solutions, for which Wibu charges a flat 0.5 percent of the total price of the systems they sell. “A sensor that costs 2 Euros needn’t cost more than one cent extra,” he says. And software offers the best possible way of securing a “naked” sensor, be it ever so smart.


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