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Different types of light sensors Light sensor.png
Different types of light sensors

In the broadest definition, a sensor is a device, module, or subsystem whose purpose is to detect events or changes in its environment and send the information to other electronics, frequently a computer processor. A sensor is always used with other electronics.


Sensors are used in everyday objects such as touch-sensitive elevator buttons (tactile sensor) and lamps which dim or brighten by touching the base, besides innumerable applications of which most people are never aware. With advances in micromachinery and easy-to-use microcontroller platforms, the uses of sensors have expanded beyond the traditional fields of temperature, pressure or flow measurement, [1] for example into MARG sensors. Moreover, analog sensors such as potentiometers and force-sensing resistors are still widely used. Applications include manufacturing and machinery, airplanes and aerospace, cars, medicine, robotics and many other aspects of our day-to-day life.

Tactile sensor device that measures information arising from physical interaction with its environment

A tactile sensor is a device that measures information arising from physical interaction with its environment. Tactile sensors are generally modeled after the biological sense of cutaneous touch which is capable of detecting stimuli resulting from mechanical stimulation, temperature, and pain. Tactile sensors are used in robotics, computer hardware and security systems. A common application of tactile sensors is in touchscreen devices on mobile phones and computing.

Micromachinery mechanical objects that are fabricated in the same general manner as integrated circuits

Micromachines are mechanical objects that are fabricated in the same general manner as integrated circuits. They are generally considered to be between 100 nanometres to 100 micrometres in size, though that is debatable. The applications of micromachines include accelerometers that detect when a car has hit an object and trigger an airbag. Complex systems of gears and levers are another application.

Microcontroller small computer on a single integrated circuit

A microcontroller is a small computer on a single integrated circuit. In modern terminology, it is similar to, but less sophisticated than, a system on a chip (SoC); an SoC may include a microcontroller as one of its components. A microcontroller contains one or more CPUs along with memory and programmable input/output peripherals. Program memory in the form of ferroelectric RAM, NOR flash or OTP ROM is also often included on chip, as well as a small amount of RAM. Microcontrollers are designed for embedded applications, in contrast to the microprocessors used in personal computers or other general purpose applications consisting of various discrete chips.

A sensor's sensitivity indicates how much the sensor's output changes when the input quantity being measured changes. For instance, if the mercury in a thermometer moves 1  cm when the temperature changes by 1 °C, the sensitivity is 1 cm/°C (it is basically the slope Dy/Dx assuming a linear characteristic). Some sensors can also affect what they measure; for instance, a room temperature thermometer inserted into a hot cup of liquid cools the liquid while the liquid heats the thermometer. Sensors are usually designed to have a small effect on what is measured; making the sensor smaller often improves this and may introduce other advantages. [2] Technological progress allows more and more sensors to be manufactured on a microscopic scale as microsensors using MEMS technology. In most cases, a microsensor reaches a significantly higher speed and sensitivity compared with macroscopic approaches. [3] [4]

The microscopic scale is the scale of objects and events smaller than those that can easily be seen by the naked eye, requiring a lens or microscope to see them clearly. In physics, the microscopic scale is sometimes regarded as the scale between the macroscopic scale and the quantum scale. Microscopic units and measurements are used to classify and describe very small objects. One common microscopic length scale unit is the micrometre, which is one millionth of a metre.

Microelectromechanical systems technology of very small devices

Microelectromechanical systems is the technology of microscopic devices, particularly those with moving parts. It merges at the nano-scale into nanoelectromechanical systems (NEMS) and nanotechnology. MEMS are also referred to as micromachines in Japan, or micro systems technology (MST) in Europe.

Classification of measurement errors

An infrared sensor Infrared Transceiver Circuit.jpg
An infrared sensor

A good sensor obeys the following rules: [ citation needed ]:

Most sensors have a linear transfer function. The sensitivity is then defined as the ratio between the output signal and measured property. For example, if a sensor measures temperature and has a voltage output, the sensitivity is a constant with the units [V/K]. The sensitivity is the slope of the transfer function. Converting the sensor's electrical output (for example V) to the measured units (for example K) requires dividing the electrical output by the slope (or multiplying by its reciprocal). In addition, an offset is frequently added or subtracted. For example, -40 must be added to the output if 0 V output corresponds to -40 C input.

Linearity is the property of a mathematical relationship or function which means that it can be graphically represented as a straight line. Examples are the relationship of voltage and current across a resistor, or the mass and weight of an object. Proportionality implies linearity, but linearity does not imply proportionality.

In engineering, a transfer function of an electronic or control system component is a mathematical function which theoretically models the device's output for each possible input. In its simplest form, this function is a two-dimensional graph of an independent scalar input versus the dependent scalar output, called a transfer curve or characteristic curve. Transfer functions for components are used to design and analyze systems assembled from components, particularly using the block diagram technique, in electronics and control theory.

The sensitivity of an electronic device, such as a communications system receiver, or detection device, such as a PIN diode, is the minimum magnitude of input signal required to produce a specified output signal having a specified signal-to-noise ratio, or other specified criteria.

For an analog sensor signal to be processed, or used in digital equipment, it needs to be converted to a digital signal, using an analog-to-digital converter.

Analog-to-digital converter system that converts an analog signal, such as a sound picked up by a microphone or light entering a digital camera, into a digital signal; device converting a physical quantity to a digital number

In electronics, an analog-to-digital converter is a system that converts an analog signal, such as a sound picked up by a microphone or light entering a digital camera, into a digital signal. An ADC may also provide an isolated measurement such as an electronic device that converts an input analog voltage or current to a digital number representing the magnitude of the voltage or current. Typically the digital output is a two's complement binary number that is proportional to the input, but there are other possibilities.

Sensor deviations

Since sensors cannot replicate an ideal transfer function, several types of deviations can occur which limit sensor accuracy:

All these deviations can be classified as systematic errors or random errors. Systematic errors can sometimes be compensated for by means of some kind of calibration strategy. Noise is a random error that can be reduced by signal processing, such as filtering, usually at the expense of the dynamic behavior of the sensor.


The resolution of a sensor is the smallest change it can detect in the quantity that it is measuring. The resolution of a sensor with a digital output is usually the resolution of the digital output. The resolution is related to the precision with which the measurement is made, but they are not the same thing. A sensor's accuracy may be considerably worse than its resolution.

Sensors in nature

All living organisms contain biological sensors with functions similar to those of the mechanical devices described. Most of these are specialized cells that are sensitive to:

Chemical sensor

A chemical sensor is a self-contained analytical device that can provide information about the chemical composition of its environment, that is, a liquid or a gas phase. [5] The information is provided in the form of a measurable physical signal that is correlated with the concentration of a certain chemical species (termed as analyte). Two main steps are involved in the functioning of a chemical sensor, namely, recognition and transduction. In the recognition step, analyte molecules interact selectively with receptor molecules or sites included in the structure of the recognition element of the sensor. Consequently, a characteristic physical parameter varies and this variation is reported by means of an integrated transducer that generates the output signal. A chemical sensor based on recognition material of biological nature is a biosensor. However, as synthetic biomimetic materials are going to substitute to some extent recognition biomaterials, a sharp distinction between a biosensor and a standard chemical sensor is superfluous. Typical biomimetic materials used in sensor development are molecularly imprinted polymers and aptamers.


In biomedicine and biotechnology, sensors which detect analytes thanks to a biological component, such as cells, protein, nucleic acid or biomimetic polymers, are called biosensors. Whereas a non-biological sensor, even organic (=carbon chemistry), for biological analytes is referred to as sensor or nanosensor. This terminology applies for both in-vitro and in vivo applications. The encapsulation of the biological component in biosensors, presents a slightly different problem that ordinary sensors; this can either be done by means of a semipermeable barrier, such as a dialysis membrane or a hydrogel, or a 3D polymer matrix, which either physically constrains the sensing macromolecule or chemically constrains the macromolecule by bounding it to the scaffold.

See also

Related Research Articles

Analytical chemistry study of the separation, identification, and quantification of the chemical components of materials

Analytical chemistry studies and uses instruments and methods used to separate, identify, and quantify matter. In practice, separation, identification or quantification may constitute the entire analysis or be combined with another method. Separation isolates analytes. Qualitative analysis identifies analytes, while quantitative analysis determines the numerical amount or concentration.

Thermocouple thermoelectric device

A thermocouple is an electrical device consisting of two dissimilar electrical conductors forming electrical junctions at differing temperatures. A thermocouple produces a temperature-dependent voltage as a result of the thermoelectric effect, and this voltage can be interpreted to measure temperature. Thermocouples are a widely used type of temperature sensor.

Thermometer device to measure temperature

A thermometer is a device that measures temperature or a temperature gradient. A thermometer has two important elements: (1) a temperature sensor in which some change occurs with a change in temperature; and (2) some means of converting this change into a numerical value. Thermometers are widely used in technology and industry to monitor processes, in meteorology, in medicine, and in scientific research.

Digital-to-analog converter device that converts a digital signal into an analog signal

In electronics, a digital-to-analog converter is a system that converts a digital signal into an analog signal. An analog-to-digital converter (ADC) performs the reverse function.

Strain gauge electronic component

A strain gauge is a device used to measure strain on an object. Invented by Edward E. Simmons and Arthur C. Ruge in 1938, the most common type of strain gauge consists of an insulating flexible backing which supports a metallic foil pattern. The gauge is attached to the object by a suitable adhesive, such as cyanoacrylate. As the object is deformed, the foil is deformed, causing its electrical resistance to change. This resistance change, usually measured using a Wheatstone bridge, is related to the strain by the quantity known as the gauge factor.

A biosensor is an analytical device, used for the detection of a chemical substance, that combines a biological component with a physicochemical detector. The sensitive biological element, e.g. tissue, microorganisms, organelles, cell receptors, enzymes, antibodies, nucleic acids, etc., is a biologically derived material or biomimetic component that interacts, binds, or recognizes with the analyte under study. The biologically sensitive elements can also be created by biological engineering. The transducer or the detector element, which transforms one signal into another one, works in a physicochemical way: optical, piezoelectric, electrochemical, electrochemiluminescence etc., resulting from the interaction of the analyte with the biological element, to easily measure and quantify. The biosensor reader device with the associated electronics or signal processors that are primarily responsible for the display of the results in a user-friendly way. This sometimes accounts for the most expensive part of the sensor device, however it is possible to generate a user friendly display that includes transducer and sensitive element. The readers are usually custom-designed and manufactured to suit the different working principles of biosensors.

Calibration curve

In analytical chemistry, a calibration curve, also known as a standard curve, is a general method for determining the concentration of a substance in an unknown sample by comparing the unknown to a set of standard samples of known concentration. A calibration curve is one approach to the problem of instrument calibration; other standard approaches may mix the standard into the unknown, giving an internal standard.

Gas chromatography common type of chromatography

Gas chromatography (GC) is a common type of chromatography used in analytical chemistry for separating and analyzing compounds that can be vaporized without decomposition. Typical uses of GC include testing the purity of a particular substance, or separating the different components of a mixture. In some situations, GC may help in identifying a compound. In preparative chromatography, GC can be used to prepare pure compounds from a mixture.

Nanosensors are nanoscale devices that measure physical quantities and convert those quantities to signals that can be detected and analyzed. There are several ways being proposed today to make nanosensors; these include top-down lithography, bottom-up assembly, and molecular self-assembly. There are different types of nanosensors in the market and in development for various applications. Though all sensors measure different things, sensors share the same basic workflow: a selective binding of an analyte, signal generation from the interaction of the nanosensor with the bio-element, and processing of the signal into useful metrics.

A medical thermometer is used for measuring human or animal body temperature. The tip of the thermometer is inserted into the mouth under the tongue, under the armpit, or into the rectum via the anus.

A liquid crystal thermometer, temperature strip or plastic strip thermometer is a type of thermometer that contains heat-sensitive (thermochromic) liquid crystals in a plastic strip that change colour to indicate different temperatures. Liquid crystals possess the mechanical properties of a liquid, but have the optical properties of a single crystal. Temperature changes can affect the colour of a liquid crystal, which makes them useful for temperature measurement. The resolution of liquid crystal sensors is in the 0.1°C range. Disposable liquid crystal thermometers have been developed for home and medical use. For example if the thermometer is black and it is put onto someone's forehead it will change colour depending on the temperature of the person.

In electronics, signal conditioning means manipulating an analog signal in such a way that it meets the requirements of the next stage for further processing. Most common use is in analog-to-digital converters.

Molecular sensor

A molecular sensor or chemosensor is a molecular structure that is used for sensing of an analyte to produce a detectable change or a signal. The action of a chemosensor, relies on an interaction occurring at the molecular level, usually involves the continuous monitoring of the activity of a chemical species in a given matrix such as solution, air, blood, tissue, waste effluents, drinking water, etc. The application of chemosensors is referred to as chemosensing, which is a form of molecular recognition. All chemosensors are designed to contain a signalling moiety and a recognition moiety, that is connected either directly to each other or through a some kind of connector or a spacer. The signalling is often optically based electromagnetic radiation, giving rise to changes in either the ultraviolet and visible absorption or the emission properties of the sensors. Chemosensors may also be electrochemically based. Small molecule sensors are related to chemosensors. These are traditionally, however, considered as being structurally simple molecules and reflect the need to form chelating molecules for complexing ions in analytical chemistry. Chemosensors are synthetic analogues of biosensors, but such sensors incorporate biological receptor such as antibodies, aptamers or large biopolymers.

Heat flux sensor

A heat flux sensor is a transducer that generates an electrical signal proportional to the total heat rate applied to the surface of the sensor. The measured heat rate is divided by the surface area of the sensor to determine the heat flux.

A fiber optic sensor is a sensor that uses optical fiber either as the sensing element, or as a means of relaying signals from a remote sensor to the electronics that process the signals. Fibers have many uses in remote sensing. Depending on the application, fiber may be used because of its small size, or because no electrical power is needed at the remote location, or because many sensors can be multiplexed along the length of a fiber by using light wavelength shift for each sensor, or by sensing the time delay as light passes along the fiber through each sensor. Time delay can be determined using a device such as an optical time-domain reflectometer and wavelength shift can be calculated using an instrument implementing optical frequency domain reflectometry.

Measuring instrument device for measuring a physical quantity

A measuring instrument is a device for measuring a physical quantity. In the physical sciences, quality assurance, and engineering, measurement is the activity of obtaining and comparing physical quantities of real-world objects and events. Established standard objects and events are used as units, and the process of measurement gives a number relating the item under study and the referenced unit of measurement. Measuring instruments, and formal test methods which define the instrument's use, are the means by which these relations of numbers are obtained. All measuring instruments are subject to varying degrees of instrument error and measurement uncertainty.

Surface acoustic wave sensors are a class of microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) which rely on the modulation of surface acoustic waves to sense a physical phenomenon. The sensor transduces an input electrical signal into a mechanical wave which, unlike an electrical signal, can be easily influenced by physical phenomena. The device then transduces this wave back into an electrical signal. Changes in amplitude, phase, frequency, or time-delay between the input and output electrical signals can be used to measure the presence of the desired phenomenon.

A biotransducer is the recognition-transduction component of a biosensor system. It consists of two intimately coupled parts; a bio-recognition layer and a physicochemical transducer, which acting together converts a biochemical signal to an electronic or optical signal. The bio-recognition layer typically contains an enzyme or another binding protein such as antibody. However, oligonucleotide sequences, sub-cellular fragments such as organelles and receptor carrying fragments, single whole cells, small numbers of cells on synthetic scaffolds, or thin slices of animal or plant tissues, may also comprise the bio-recognition layer. It gives the biosensor selectivity and specificity. The physicochemical transducer is typically in intimate and controlled contact with the recognition layer. As a result of the presence and biochemical action of the analyte, a physico-chemical change is produced within the biorecognition layer that is measured by the physicochemical transducer producing a signal that is proportionate to the concentration of the analyte. The physicochemical transducer may be electrochemical, optical, electronic, gravimetric, pyroelectric or piezoelectric. Based on the type of biotransducer, biosensors can be classified as shown to the right.


Field-effect transistor-based biosensor(Bio-FET or BioFET) is a field-effect transistor that is gated by changes in the surface potential induced by the binding of molecules. When charged molecules, such as biomolecules, bind to the FET gate, which is usually a dielectric material, they can change the charge distribution of the underlying semiconductor material resulting in a change in conductance of the FET channel. A Bio-FET consists of two main compartments: one is the biological recognition element and the other is the field-effect transistor.

While almost every weighing scale uses the same basic principle, industrial weighing scales are designed to do a lot more. They handle heavier loads, often in different conditions, both environmental and physical.


  1. Bennett, S. (1993). A History of Control Engineering 1930–1955. London: Peter Peregrinus Ltd. on behalf of the Institution of Electrical Engineers. ISBN   978-0-86341-280-6<The source states "controls" rather than "sensors", so its applicability is assumed. Many units are derived from the basic measurements to which it refers, such as a liquid's level measured by a differential pressure sensor.>
  2. Jihong Yan (2015). Machinery Prognostics and Prognosis Oriented Maintenance Management. Wiley & Sons Singapore Pte. Ltd. p. 107. ISBN   9781118638729.
  3. Jihong Yan (2015). Machinery Prognostics and Prognosis Oriented Maintenance Management. Wiley & Sons Singapore Pte. Ltd. p. 108. ISBN   9781118638729.
  4. Ganesh Kumar (September 2010). Modern General Knowledge. Upkar Prakashan. p. 194. ISBN   978-81-7482-180-5.
  5. Bǎnicǎ, Florinel-Gabriel (2012). Chemical Sensors and Biosensors:Fundamentals and Applications. Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons. p. 576. ISBN   978-1-118-35423-0.

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