Continuous sensors convert physical phenomena to measurable signals, typically voltages or currents. Consider a simple temperature measuring device, there will be an increase in output voltage proportional to a temperature rise. A computer could measure the voltage, and convert it to a temperature. The basic physical phenomena typically measured with sensors include;
Most of these sensors are based on subtle electrical properties of materials and devices. As a result the signals often require signal conditioners. These are often amplifiers that boost currents and voltages to larger voltages.
Sensors are also called transducers. This is because they convert an input phenomena to an output in a different form. This transformation relies upon a manufactured device with limitations and imperfection. As a result sensor limitations are often characterized with;
Accuracy - This is the maximum difference between the indicated and actual reading. For example, if a sensor reads a force of 100N with a ±1% accuracy, then the force could be anywhere from 99N to 101N.
Resolution - Used for systems that step through readings. This is the smallest increment that the sensor can detect, this may also be incorporated into the accuracy value. For example if a sensor measures up to 10 inches of linear displacements, and it outputs a number between 0 and 100, then the resolution of the device is 0.1 inches.
Repeatability - When a single sensor condition is made and repeated, there will be a small variation for that particular reading. If we take a statistical range for repeated readings (e.g., ±3 standard deviations) this will be the repeatability. For example, if a flow rate sensor has a repeatability of 0.5cfm, readings for an actual flow of 100cfm should rarely be outside 99.5cfm to 100.5cfm.
Linearity - In a linear sensor the input phenomenon has a linear relationship with the output signal. In most sensors this is a desirable feature. When the relationship is not linear, the conversion from the sensor output (e.g., voltage) to a calculated quantity (e.g., force) becomes more complex.
Dynamic Response - The frequency range for regular operation of the sensor. Typically sensors will have an upper operation frequency, occasionally there will be lower frequency limits. For example, our ears hear best between 10Hz and 16KHz.
Environmental - Sensors all have some limitations over factors such as temperature, humidity, dirt/oil, corrosives and pressures. For example many sensors will work in relative humidities (RH) from 10% to 80%.
Calibration - When manufactured or installed, many sensors will need some calibration to determine or set the relationship between the input phenomena, and output. For example, a temperature reading sensor may need to be zeroed or adjusted so that the measured temperature matches the actual temperature. This may require special equipment, and need to be performed frequently.