Wired vs. Wireless Sensors

Wired sensors have been in existence for a long time. A wired sensor is simply one whose power is supplied by an electrical connection to the monitored environment and an ethernet connection to a controller or hub, allowing for data flow.   Wireless sensors have an ‘on-board’ power source, such as an energy harvester driven source, or a battery or both, and uses WIFI for data flow and communication.

What should be considered in determining the type of sensor to deploy?
Some ask which is better to use. The answer is simple: it depends on the environment and the situation. In some cases both may be advisable.

What should be considered in determining the type of sensor to deploy?
The characteristics of the environment:

If it’s in a large area, where power or ethernet is not readily available, as in an open industrial complex such as a mine, this may favor a wireless sensor, since deployment costs can easily become a major factor when deploying a sensor environment. If there is a need to run new power, or if running power is just out of the question, then the answer clear. Harsh environments will always favor the Wireless solutions.

If it a relatively smaller area with power and ethernet easily available, This may favor a wired sensor. While there may still be some deployment costs, they will likely be much less than those associated with the above.

If the environment includes falling debris, hazardous/toxic fumes or extreme heat, wireless is the best choice, since heat and falling debris will negatively impact any cabling during operation. In addition, dangerous fumes and falling debris can be a risk for people installing and maintaining wired sensors.

2. Scalability and flexibility:
The larger the number of sensors required, the more likely wireless sensors make sense as the cost of installation and maintenance of wired sensors can be significant.

If sensors are at times moved, or it is required that sensors move, then wireless sensors are a better choice than wired sensors, again for cost and control reasons.

3. Reliability:
Data – while some believe that LAN sensors are more reliable, current wireless technologies and wireless mesh systems have excellent reliability that will provide the needed protection.

Sensor reliability – there is no difference in sensor reliability between wired or wireless.

4. Life of the solution:
If powered by batteries, the life of the sensor is limited. Some, depending on the frequency of data delivery can last 5- 10 years, but more typically the life of the sensor is much shorter, and perhaps less than a year. There are now available perpetual sensors powered by energy harvesting technology. Energy harvesting can provide power for the life of the system being monitored without maintenance.

5. Cost:
Installation and environment: The larger the installation, the more sensors required to be deployed, the harsher the environment,, the more apt that wireless sensors are the most economical choice.

And in many cases of smaller installations with the possibility of scaling, deploying the wireless sensor makes sense such that there are not two development and qualification efforts done in series.

Development costs and efforts:
Frequently there are hidden learning curve costs of developing a sensor system where the complete system design are unique to specific applications and include a range of determining factors, that can cause unexpected delay and costs, ranging from the choice of a power supply to data transmission, reliability and life testing, etc. The combination of these can kill the ROI of a project and delay introduction of a sensor system. Further, when considering such a project, it is wise to find companies with experience in the development, design and placement of wireless sensors systems.

While these are engineering costs outside of the company, the efficiency of the effort by an experienced partner, the scale up of prototype to manufacturing and then supply and the time-to-market are all important factors in determining the success of the project, from both a time and budget perspective as well as achieving cost savings and/or revenue generation goals.

The bottom line is that with improvements in data reliability of wireless technologies, and with much longer life wireless sensors and an experienced wireless sensor design company as a partner, wireless sensors provide a better choice in nearly all situations. However, it is critical to take the time to do the proper research and discovery to better understand the exact environment for your sensing system needs. Engaging with an experienced partner can help guide you through process, help set some realistic timelines and expected costs, and help ensure long term ROI and success of the project.

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