Make Any Sensor a Smart Sensor with PICMG IoT.1, Part 1: What Makes a Sensor Smart?

By Brandon Lewis


Embedded Computing Design

By David Sandy

Technical Writing Consultant


February 02, 2022


Make Any Sensor a Smart Sensor with PICMG IoT.1, Part 1: What Makes a Sensor Smart?

To accelerate the development and deployment of smart sensors in Industry 4.0 applications, the PICMG IoT.1 specification outlines a standard data model for sensor manufacturers and systems integrators. In Part 1, we look at the requirements of a smart sensor and outline the tools required to make your own.

Editor's Note: For a specific part of the series, click below:

Data is the foundation of smart factory and Industry 4.0 value, and that data is captured by sensors at the edge. Transforming that data into intelligence requires the convergence of the IT and OT domains, which begins with smart sensors.

At a basic level, smart sensors are what they sound like. Data acquisition endpoints that integrate some amount of logic for identifying, filtering, and transmitting points of interest from captured data on to other systems.

Of course, it’s more than that, especially if you’re an enterprise professional who needs to capture and analyze operational data in business intelligence efforts. Smart sensors use sophisticated firmware that’s usually written by embedded engineers with years of experience, and that firmware must be validated and tested to ensure production sensors operate reliably and as expected.

For non-engineers, this is enough to stop a smart sensor initiative before it starts. But for Industry 4.0 to deliver on its value proposition, technologists of all skill levels must be able to develop, deploy, and manage smart sensors with ease. 

PICMG’s IoT.1 firmware specification was designed with that in mind, and offers a simple, no-code path to creating smart sensors that makes this process easier than ever before.

To understand how PICMG IoT.1 makes this possible, first we need to understand exactly what makes a sensor smart.

What Makes a Sensor Smart?

What differentiates a smart sensor from a traditional sensor is the ability for it, and by extension any host, to interpret data in a user-friendly, human-readable format. 

You should be able to plug a smart sensor into any device and have it, and its output, be recognized right away. Just as you plug a mouse into a computer and it is immediately recognized as a mouse so you can start navigating with your cursor, any system you plug a smart thermistor into should immediately read its outputs as ºC or ºF and the value of the outputs as natively formatted on the thermistor.

The magic behind all this is firmware that reads electrical signals generated by the sensor and uses a set of predetermined parameters to output usable data to the host. But unlike the homogeneous world of consumer PCs and mice, sensor integrators today often write their own custom firmware and device drivers. 

While this doesn’t add much, if any, value for the sensor manufacturer, it creates massive interoperability issues across sensors that segment the market – and not in a good way. Recognizing this, and the need for technologists of all skill levels to be able to develop smart sensors quickly and easily, PICMG developed the IoT.1 firmware specification. 

The PICMG IoT.1 specification defines a standard firmware data model that was designed with simplicity in mind. It can be used by sensor manufacturers to transform normal sensors into smart sensors, and by OEMs and system integrators to pull data from any smart sensor into any design with ease.

With PICMG IoT.1 as a foundation, anyone should be able to configure a smart sensor in minutes. And we will in Part 4.

But first, let’s get a better understanding of PICMG IoT.1 by peeking under the hood at how the spec’s data model will fit into our project.

Click here for Part 2: What is a Data Model and How Does it Apply to PICMG IoT.1?

Brandon is responsible for guiding content strategy, editorial direction, and community engagement across the Embedded Computing Design ecosystem. A 10-year veteran of the electronics media industry, he enjoys covering topics ranging from development kits to cybersecurity and tech business models. Brandon received a BA in English Literature from Arizona State University, where he graduated cum laude. He can be reached at [email protected].

More from Brandon

David has been instrumental in developing the open source Configurator as part of the PICMG IoT effort. He has been involved with PICMG since 2020 as both an intern and a technical writer. David is currently pursuing his Bachelor’s of Science in Software Engineering at Arizona State University.

More from David