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What is a sensor network?

What do sensor networks do and what do they mean to organisations?

An abstract network graphic overlaid on an aerial view of a motorway network.

No longer solely the realm of scientists, a sensor network can be of great use to enterprises.

These networks consist of small, autonomous devices located over a wide area that can sense and report several parameters about their surroundings, such as humidity, temperature, and vibrations.

They can be used in various environments, such as agricultural, industrial and medical, to name a few. The devices are generally battery-powered, but increasingly they can rely on renewable energy like solar power, and in some cases, they're powered by ambient radio waves.

The network itself connects to the internet, WAN, LAN or other industrial networks, to transmit data to systems and applications for analysis. This data can be used by organisations to improve their operations and become more effective. 

Wireless sensor networks often deploy mesh networking. Here, data is collected at a sensor and then relayed from sensor to sensor towards a base station. Such a mesh network can be energy intensive as each node has to pass on another's data as well as its own. Using a wireless sensor network also reduces the need for physical cables for power and data transmission.

Use cases

Sensor networks can be used in a number of ways, including location awareness, industrial monitoring and tracking, supply chain distribution and logistics, and data centre resource management.

Location awareness: sensors can determine their location and pass this information back to applications. For example, sensors can be attached to drones for surveillance or mapping purposes.

Industrial monitoring: sensors can be deployed in industrial settings to monitor environmental variables and equipment status. Such sensors can indicate to maintenance personnel if there are issues that need to be dealt with.

Supply chain distribution and logistics: RFID tags can be appended to goods and tracked via sensor networks to improve the reliability and effectiveness of supply chains.

Data centre resource management: sensors can be used to improve the energy efficiency of data centres by monitoring power usage, temperature, humidity and pressure. This real-time data can be used to optimise energy use and make substantial cost savings.

Benefits

Among the benefits of a sensor network are:

Tracking behaviour for real-time marketing: sensor networks can be used to track customers and offer them products better suited to their needs.

Sensor-driven decision analytics: this allows statistical analysis of data collected from sensors to detect anomalies and predict failing equipment or medical conditions.

Enhanced situational awareness: a large number of sensors can be deployed in buildings and roads to report on real-time conditions such as temperature and weather.

Optimised resource consumption: for example, utility companies can use smart meters to enable customers to better manage energy consumption. 

Rapid control and response in complicated autonomous systems: sensor networks can be beneficial for the real-time sensing of unpredictable conditions. 

Scalability: a wireless sensor network can be used where there is a need for dense deployments, such as in agriculture to measure soil conditions and automated irrigation.

Picture: Bigstock

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