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Current developments in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning are bringing affordable virtual sensors to the IoT (Internet of Things), enabling an array of potential applications, from smart homes to industrial automation. Virtual sensors use machine learning to predict what a physical sensor would measure based on past readings.

What are virtual sensors?

Virtual sensors are software-based models of physical sensors that can simulate their behaviour and generate sensor readings without the need for actual physical hardware. They can be used as digital twins to monitor or control a physical sensor, providing cost-effective and scalable solutions for certain applications.

Virtual sensors leverage developments on the artificial intelligence and machine learning front to allow for data-driven approaches to estimate key process parameters. In addition to being less expensive, virtual sensors provide an interesting alternative when a physical sensor cannot be placed in the preferred position due to spatial conditions (e.g. lack of room for a sensor) or a hostile environment (e.g. exposure to acids or extreme temperatures). Virtual sensor technology can reduce signal noise and, thus, increase confidence in the signals when a sensor’s output is confirmed by other sensors measuring the same phenomenon. Finally, virtual sensors are extremely flexible and can be redesigned as required, whereas physical sensors, once installed, often can only be repositioned by mechanical intervention.

Cost is a key advantage

Industry 4.0 is an important driver of virtual sensing technology. The information needed to digitize a factory plant is obtained from many field sensors. If only physical sensors are used for this purpose, the cost of digitizing a factory can be prohibitive for many companies. This cost can be minimized using virtual sensors.

How standards can help

Virtual sensors are on the way to becoming a fundamental technology for the future of society. Their use is expected to grow at a CAGR (compound annual growth rate) of over 30% over the next five years, and that trend will likely continue for many years to come.

SC 41 is a subcommittee formed by the IEC and ISO to standardize the IoT and digital twin. In a recent interview with e-tech, its Chair, François Coallier mentions “Further down the line, we may be preparing standards for virtual sensors and on the quality of data: how can we ensure the vast amount of information we collect from the various sensors out there is appropriate and meets the right criteria. ISO/IEC JTC 1/SC 42, which prepares standards for artificial intelligence, is looking at these issues, so we could be joining hands on that.”

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