Sensors—Game-Changing Data Collection

E-mail Craig K. Harmon

In an April 30,, 2009 article entitled Opinion: 10 game-changing technologies, John Brandon at Computerworld listed sensors as leading the list of those technologies, saying "Sensor technology is a game-changer because it means any physical object—a bridge, the loading dock at a warehouse, the clothes you wear or even your own skin—can communicate with a network."

Today sensors read bar codes and 2D symbols, identify whether temperature thresholds have been reached in cold chain applications, whether a container has been breached, or if a piece of merchandise is leaving a store without authorization or sale. Newly established efforts at the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) on climate change will require sensors for environmental monitoring. These single-function data collection devices support harbor freight intelligent management systems; monitor hazardous goods and chemicals; monitor process parameters such as temperature, pressure, and flow; enable the tracking of hospital equipment and personnel; monitor permafrost soil for early detection of problems; manage tools, for example, in the aviation industry; and perform blood bag monitoring and status tracking.

The device landscape of Automatic Identification and Data Capture (AIDC) has expanded beyond optical sensors and data collection to include devices such as wireless terminals, electronic container seals, article surveillance, and location technologies. Increasingly, we are seeing needs and applications that require the integration of sensors with RFID and other data collection techniques.

To do this effectively, we need standards. Two-years ago, when the working group on Mobile Item Identification and Management (MIIM) (ISO/IEC JTC 1/SC 31/WG 6) was formed, there were three principal areas within its scope:

  1. The convergence of mobile computing, mobile telephony, and AIDC
  2. The interface of mobile AIDC to the wireless network
  3. Sensors specifications

Sensor specifications include parameters to be measured, units of measure, data definition, required precision, sampling period, recording of measured data, and access to measured data from a network terminal. Over the past 15 years IEEE has been developing a suite of standards under IEEE Committee 1451, Smart Transducer Interface for Sensors and Actuators.

SC 31/WG 6 is currently working with IEEE to bring four of their standards into SC 31 under an ISO/IEEE special agreement. Those four standards are:

  • ISO/IEC/IEEE 21450 [IEEE 1451.0], Information technology — Standard for a Smart Transducer Interface for Sensors and Actuators — Common Functions, Communication Protocols, and Transducer Electronic Data Sheet (TEDS) Formats


  • ISO/IEC/IEEE 21451-1 [IEEE 1451.1], Information technology — Standard for a Smart Transducer Interface for Sensors and Actuators — Network Capable Application Processor (NCAP) Information Model


  • ISO/IEC/IEEE 21451-2 [IEEE 1451.2], Information technology — Standard for a Smart Transducer Interface for Sensors and Actuators — Transducer to Microprocessor Communication Protocols and Transducer Electronic Data Sheet (TEDS) Formats


  • ISO/IEC/IEEE 21451-4 [IEEE 1451.4], Information technology — Standard for a Smart Transducer Interface for Sensors and Actuators — Mixed-Mode Communication Protocols and Transducer Electronic Data Sheet (TEDS) Formats

At the same time as these standards are being processed, WG 6 is also working jointly with the IEEE 1451 Committee in the development of ISO/IEC/IEEE 21451-7, Sensors for RFID.

ISO/IEC/IEEE 21451-7 provides international standardization for

Unique sensor identifierSensor type definition
Unit of measurement identificationUnit of measurement resolution
Data uncertaintySensor configuration/reconfiguration
Sensor security/authentication/encryptionTime stamps
Alarm values/threshold valuesSensor commands
Event recordsPhysical interfaces

Approval of the four published IEEE standards is expected in ISO/IEC within six months and the release of an approved draft of Sensors for RFID is expected within the same time period.

While some of the initial work in 21451-7 envisioned ported sensors, it is now expected that prior to publication this International Standard will address memory-based sensors as well.

International standardization asks for the broadest participation base of effected and interested parties. Anyone wishing to participate in this effort is invited to contact the article's author to learn how.

Craig K. Harmon, President and CEO of Q.E.D. Systems Cedar Rapids, IA, has over 25 years of experience in the information systems industry. He is an expert on AIDC standardization and chairs the ISO committee addressing RFID applications in the supply chain. He also chairs the RFID Experts Group, and the U.S. group developing the U.S. positions for ISO RFID standards. He chairs the ISO committee on Mobile Item Identification and Management on bringing ISO standardization to Mobile RFID and Mobile Optical Media with Web services as well as chairing the ISO committee responsible for the development of sensor specifications.

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