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, 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.
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. 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.
Classification of measurement errors
A good sensor obeys the following rules::
- it is sensitive to the measured property
- it is insensitive to any other property likely to be encountered in its application, and
- it does not influence the measured property.
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.
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.
- Since the range of the output signal is always limited, the output signal will eventually reach a minimum or maximum when the measured property exceeds the limits. The full scale range defines the maximum and minimum values of the measured property.
- The sensitivity may in practice differ from the value specified. This is called a sensitivity error. This is an error in the slope of a linear transfer function.
- If the output signal differs from the correct value by a constant, the sensor has an offset error or bias. This is an error in the y-intercept of a linear transfer function.
- Nonlinearity is deviation of a sensor's transfer function from a straight line transfer function. Usually, this is defined by the amount the output differs from ideal behavior over the full range of the sensor, often noted as a percentage of the full range.
- Deviation caused by rapid changes of the measured property over time is a dynamic error. Often, this behavior is described with a bode plot showing sensitivity error and phase shift as a function of the frequency of a periodic input signal.
- If the output signal slowly changes independent of the measured property, this is defined as drift. Long term drift over months or years is caused by physical changes in the sensor.
- Noise is a random deviation of the signal that varies in time.
- A hysteresis error causes the output value to vary depending on the previous input values. If a sensor's output is different depending on whether a specific input value was reached by increasing vs. decreasing the input, then the sensor has a hysteresis error.
- If the sensor has a digital output, the output is essentially an approximation of the measured property. This error is also called quantization error.
- If the signal is monitored digitally, the sampling frequency can cause a dynamic error, or if the input variable or added noise changes periodically at a frequency near a multiple of the sampling rate, aliasing errors may occur.
- The sensor may to some extent be sensitive to properties other than the property being measured. For example, most sensors are influenced by the temperature of their environment.
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:
- Light, motion, temperature, magnetic fields, gravity, humidity, moisture, vibration, pressure, electrical fields, sound, and other physical aspects of the external environment
- Physical aspects of the internal environment, such as stretch, motion of the organism, and position of appendages (proprioception)
- Environmental molecules, including toxins, nutrients, and pheromones
- Estimation of biomolecules interaction and some kinetics parameters
- Internal metabolic indicators, such as glucose level, oxygen level, or osmolality
- Internal signal molecules, such as hormones, neurotransmitters, and cytokines
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. 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.
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