A sensor is a device that measures a physical quantity and converts it into a signal which can be read by an observer or by an instrument. For example, a mercury-in-glass thermometer
Mercury-in-glass thermometer
A mercury-in-glass thermometer, also known as a mercury thermometer, was invented by German physicist Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit in 1724 and is a thermometer consisting of mercury in a glass tube. Calibrated marks on the tube allow the temperature to be read by the length of the mercury within the...

 converts the measured temperature into expansion and contraction of a liquid which can be read on a calibrated glass tube. A thermocouple
A thermocouple is a device consisting of two different conductors that produce a voltage proportional to a temperature difference between either end of the pair of conductors. Thermocouples are a widely used type of temperature sensor for measurement and control and can also be used to convert a...

 converts temperature to an output voltage which can be read by a voltmeter
A voltmeter is an instrument used for measuring electrical potential difference between two points in an electric circuit. Analog voltmeters move a pointer across a scale in proportion to the voltage of the circuit; digital voltmeters give a numerical display of voltage by use of an analog to...

. For accuracy, most sensors are calibrated
Calibration is a comparison between measurements – one of known magnitude or correctness made or set with one device and another measurement made in as similar a way as possible with a second device....

 against known standards
Standard (metrology)
In the science of measurement, a standard is an object, system, or experiment that bears a defined relationship to a unit of measurement of a physical quantity. Standards are the fundamental reference for a system of weights and measures, against which all other measuring devices are compared...



Sensors are used in everyday objects such as touch-sensitive elevator buttons (tactile sensor
Tactile sensor
The term tactile sensor usually refers to a transducer that is sensitive to touch, force, or pressure. Tactile sensors are employed wherever interactions between a contact surface and the environment are to be measured and registered...

) and lamps which dim or brighten by touching the base. There are also innumerable applications for sensors of which most people are never aware. Applications include cars, machines, aerospace, medicine, manufacturing and robotics.

A sensor is a device which receives and responds to a signal.
A sensor's sensitivity indicates how much the sensor's output changes when the measured quantity 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). Sensors that measure very small changes must have very high sensitivities. Sensors also have an impact on 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 need to be 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
Microelectromechanical systems
Microelectromechanical systems is the technology of very small mechanical devices driven by electricity; it merges at the nano-scale into nanoelectromechanical systems and nanotechnology...

 technology. In most cases, a microsensor reaches a significantly higher speed and sensitivity compared with macroscopic
The macroscopic scale is the length scale on which objects or processes are of a size which is measurable and observable by the naked eye.When applied to phenomena and abstract objects, the macroscopic scale describes existence in the world as we perceive it, often in contrast to experiences or...


Classification of measurement errors

A good sensor obeys the following rules:
  • Is sensitive to the measured property only
  • Is insensitive to any other property likely to be encountered in its application
  • Does not influence the measured property

Ideal sensors are designed to be linear
In mathematics, a linear map or function f is a function which satisfies the following two properties:* Additivity : f = f + f...

 or linear to some simple mathematical function of the measurement, typically logarithm
The logarithm of a number is the exponent by which another fixed value, the base, has to be raised to produce that number. For example, the logarithm of 1000 to base 10 is 3, because 1000 is 10 to the power 3: More generally, if x = by, then y is the logarithm of x to base b, and is written...

ic. The output signal of such a sensor is linearly proportional
Proportionality (mathematics)
In mathematics, two variable quantities are proportional if one of them is always the product of the other and a constant quantity, called the coefficient of proportionality or proportionality constant. In other words, are proportional if the ratio \tfrac yx is constant. We also say that one...

 to the value or simple function of the measured property. The sensitivity
Sensitivity (electronics)
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.Sensitivity is...

 is then defined as the ratio between output signal and measured property. For example, if a sensor measures temperature and has a voltage output, the sensitivity is a constant with the unit [V/K]; this sensor is linear because the ratio is constant at all points of measurement.

Sensor deviations

If the sensor is not ideal, several types of deviations can be observed:
  • The sensitivity
    Sensitivity (electronics)
    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.Sensitivity is...

     may in practice differ from the value specified. This is called a sensitivity error, but the sensor is still linear.
  • 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.
  • If the output signal is not zero when the measured property is zero, the sensor has an offset
    The term offset may refer to:* Carbon offset, a financial instrument aimed at a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions* Offset agreement, trade practice in Aerospace and Defense Industry...

     or bias
    Bias is an inclination to present or hold a partial perspective at the expense of alternatives. Bias can come in many forms.-In judgement and decision making:...

    . This is defined as the output of the sensor at zero input.
  • If the sensitivity is not constant over the range of the sensor, this is called non linearity. 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.
  • If the deviation is caused by a rapid change of the measured property over time, there is a dynamic error. Often, this behavior is described with a bode plot
    Bode plot
    A Bode plot is a graph of the transfer function of a linear, time-invariant system versus frequency, plotted with a log-frequency axis, to show the system's frequency response...

     showing sensitivity error and phase shift as 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 (telecommunication)
    Drift (telecommunication)
    In telecommunication, a drift is a comparatively long-term change in an attribute, value, or operational parameter of a system or equipment. The drift should be characterized, such as "diurnal frequency drift" and "output level drift." Drift is usually undesirable and unidirectional, but may be...

  • Long term drift usually indicates a slow degradation of sensor properties over a long period of time.
  • Noise
    In common use, the word noise means any unwanted sound. In both analog and digital electronics, noise is random unwanted perturbation to a wanted signal; it is called noise as a generalisation of the acoustic noise heard when listening to a weak radio transmission with significant electrical noise...

     is a random deviation of the signal that varies in time.
  • Hysteresis
    Hysteresis is the dependence of a system not just on its current environment but also on its past. This dependence arises because the system can be in more than one internal state. To predict its future evolution, either its internal state or its history must be known. If a given input alternately...

     is an error caused by when the measured property reverses direction, but there is some finite lag in time for the sensor to respond, creating a different offset error in one direction than in the other.
  • If the sensor has a digital output, the output is essentially an approximation of the measured property. The approximation error is also called digitization error.
  • If the signal is monitored digitally, limitation of the sampling frequency also can cause a dynamic error, or if the variable or added noise noise changes periodically at a frequency near a multiple of the sampling rate may induce aliasing
    In signal processing and related disciplines, aliasing refers to an effect that causes different signals to become indistinguishable when sampled...

  • 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 error
Systematic error
Systematic errors are biases in measurement which lead to the situation where the mean of many separate measurements differs significantly from the actual value of the measured attribute. All measurements are prone to systematic errors, often of several different types...

s or random errors. Systematic errors can sometimes be compensated for by means of some kind of calibration
Calibration is a comparison between measurements – one of known magnitude or correctness made or set with one device and another measurement made in as similar a way as possible with a second device....

 strategy. Noise is a random error that can be reduced by signal processing
Signal processing
Signal processing is an area of systems engineering, electrical engineering and applied mathematics that deals with operations on or analysis of signals, in either discrete or continuous time...

, 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. Often in a digital display, the least significant digit will fluctuate, indicating that changes of that magnitude are only just resolved. The resolution is related to the precision
Accuracy and precision
In the fields of science, engineering, industry and statistics, the accuracy of a measurement system is the degree of closeness of measurements of a quantity to that quantity's actual value. The precision of a measurement system, also called reproducibility or repeatability, is the degree to which...

 with which the measurement is made. For example, a scanning tunneling probe
Scanning tunneling microscope
A scanning tunneling microscope is an instrument for imaging surfaces at the atomic level. Its development in 1981 earned its inventors, Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer , the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1986. For an STM, good resolution is considered to be 0.1 nm lateral resolution and...

 (a fine tip near a surface collects an electron tunnelling current) can resolve atom
The atom is a basic unit of matter that consists of a dense central nucleus surrounded by a cloud of negatively charged electrons. The atomic nucleus contains a mix of positively charged protons and electrically neutral neutrons...

s and molecule
A molecule is an electrically neutral group of at least two atoms held together by covalent chemical bonds. Molecules are distinguished from ions by their electrical charge...


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 field
    Magnetic field
    A magnetic field is a mathematical description of the magnetic influence of electric currents and magnetic materials. The magnetic field at any given point is specified by both a direction and a magnitude ; as such it is a vector field.Technically, a magnetic field is a pseudo vector;...

    s, gravity, humidity
    Humidity is a term for the amount of water vapor in the air, and can refer to any one of several measurements of humidity. Formally, humid air is not "moist air" but a mixture of water vapor and other constituents of air, and humidity is defined in terms of the water content of this mixture,...

    , moisture
    Humidity is the amount of moisture the air can hold before it rains. Moisture refers to the presence of a liquid, especially water, often in trace amounts...

    , vibration
    Oscillation is the repetitive variation, typically in time, of some measure about a central value or between two or more different states. Familiar examples include a swinging pendulum and AC power. The term vibration is sometimes used more narrowly to mean a mechanical oscillation but sometimes...

    , pressure, electrical fields, sound
    Sound is a mechanical wave that is an oscillation of pressure transmitted through a solid, liquid, or gas, composed of frequencies within the range of hearing and of a level sufficiently strong to be heard, or the sensation stimulated in organs of hearing by such vibrations.-Propagation of...

    , and other physical aspects of the external environment
  • Physical aspects of the internal environment, such as stretch
    Stretching is a form of physical exercise in which a specific skeletal muscle is deliberately elongated, often by abduction from the torso, in order to improve the muscle's felt elasticity and reaffirm comfortable muscle tone. The result is a feeling of increased muscle control, flexibility and...

    , motion of the organism, and position of appendages (proprioception
    Proprioception , from Latin proprius, meaning "one's own" and perception, is the sense of the relative position of neighbouring parts of the body and strength of effort being employed in movement...

  • Environmental molecules, including toxin
    A toxin is a poisonous substance produced within living cells or organisms; man-made substances created by artificial processes are thus excluded...

    s, nutrient
    A nutrient is a chemical that an organism needs to live and grow or a substance used in an organism's metabolism which must be taken in from its environment. They are used to build and repair tissues, regulate body processes and are converted to and used as energy...

    s, and pheromone
    A pheromone is a secreted or excreted chemical factor that triggers a social response in members of the same species. Pheromones are chemicals capable of acting outside the body of the secreting individual to impact the behavior of the receiving individual...

  • Estimation of biomolecules interaction and some kinetics parameters
  • Internal metabolic milieu, such as glucose
    Glucose is a simple sugar and an important carbohydrate in biology. Cells use it as the primary source of energy and a metabolic intermediate...

     level, oxygen
    Oxygen is the element with atomic number 8 and represented by the symbol O. Its name derives from the Greek roots ὀξύς and -γενής , because at the time of naming, it was mistakenly thought that all acids required oxygen in their composition...

     level, or osmolality
  • Internal signal molecules, such as hormone
    A hormone is a chemical released by a cell or a gland in one part of the body that sends out messages that affect cells in other parts of the organism. Only a small amount of hormone is required to alter cell metabolism. In essence, it is a chemical messenger that transports a signal from one...

    s, neurotransmitter
    Neurotransmitters are endogenous chemicals that transmit signals from a neuron to a target cell across a synapse. Neurotransmitters are packaged into synaptic vesicles clustered beneath the membrane on the presynaptic side of a synapse, and are released into the synaptic cleft, where they bind to...

    s, and cytokine
    Cytokines are small cell-signaling protein molecules that are secreted by the glial cells of the nervous system and by numerous cells of the immune system and are a category of signaling molecules used extensively in intercellular communication...

  • Differences between protein
    Proteins are biochemical compounds consisting of one or more polypeptides typically folded into a globular or fibrous form, facilitating a biological function. A polypeptide is a single linear polymer chain of amino acids bonded together by peptide bonds between the carboxyl and amino groups of...

    s of the organism itself and of the environment or alien creatures.


In biomedicine and biotechnology, sensors which detect analytes thanks to a biological component, such as cells, protein, nucleic acid or biomimetic polymers, are called biosensor
A biosensor is an analytical device for the detection of an analyte that combines a biological component with a physicochemical detector component.It consists of 3 parts:* the sensitive biological element A biosensor is an analytical device for the detection of an analyte that combines a biological...

Whereas a non-biological sensor, even organic (=carbon chemistry), for biological analytes is referred to as sensor or nanosensor (such a microcantilevers). This terminology applies for both in vitro and in vivo applications.
The encapsulation of the biological component in biosensors, presents with a slightly different problem that ordinary sensors, this can either be done by means of a semipermeable barrier
Semipermeable membrane
A semipermeable membrane, also termed a selectively permeable membrane, a partially permeable membrane or a differentially permeable membrane, is a membrane that will allow certain molecules or ions to pass through it by diffusion and occasionally specialized "facilitated diffusion".The rate of...

, such as a dialysis
In medicine, dialysis is a process for removing waste and excess water from the blood, and is primarily used to provide an artificial replacement for lost kidney function in people with renal failure...

 membrane or a hydrogel, a 3D polymer matrix, which either physically constrains the sensing macromolecule or chemically (macromolecule is bound to the scaffold).

See also

External links

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