What Are the Different Types of Electronic Sensor?

Andrew Kirmayer
Andrew Kirmayer
Man mowing the grass
Man mowing the grass

An electronic sensor can be designed to measure one of many variables. Types of electronic sensors include force sensors, light detectors, tilt sensors, and passive infrared (PIR) sensors. The many varieties of these sensors operate on the principle of making measurements based on changes in an electrical signal. This signal is then relayed either by wire or wirelessly to an indicator or equipment programmed to respond to changes in the measurement. Heaters and automated lighting systems are a couple of things that make use of electronic sensors, and different sensor elements can also be integrated into devices like microphones, video cameras, and photocells.

A force sensitive resistor is a sensor that can tell how much force is being applied, such as when a finger touches a button. It is also used in electronic pianos, enabling the instruments to react like a traditional piano would when someone uses a certain pressure to hit the keys. More widely used are PIR sensors which detect variations in infrared (IR) energy to sense changes in the environment. The IR signature of a wall can be told apart from that of a person quickly walking past a beam of emitted IR light. Limitations of this kind of electronic sensor include the inability to measure stationary objects or detect anything behind glass.

Tilt sensors are another type of electronic sensor. These sensors can tell the angle at which a surface is oriented and are commonly used in airplanes and cars, as well as instruments used for surveying. Variations of tilt sensors are electrolytic types that include a conductive fluid, magnetic devices, and capacitive sensors in which the signal changes as a component moves between two electrically conductive plates. Tilt can be detected by sensors that measure in one direction, and ones that detect tilt on two axes.

Changes in light intensity can also be measured by an electronic sensor. These variations in light can be used for devices such as touch keypads, which work like computer keyboards but operate based on changes in voltage when a finger blocks the light on the key. Photocell sensors can also be used in musical instruments, and even control specific functions such as volume, pitch, and even tempo. The electronic sensor types are so varied that one or more can be found in almost any electronic device, and the electrical output allows for connection to any kind of electronic component.

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Discussion Comments


@nony - Sensors are everywhere. As an example, years ago I used to play a flight simulator game on my computer. Instead of using a regular joystick however I bought a game controller made specifically for flight simulation games.

What it did was translate my movements into movements that would be seen on screen. I guess it uses a tilt sensor of some sort. When I turn it, the airplane turns. This affects all the usual movements of the airplane, whether you are talking about a pitch, yaw or roll.

It would have been difficult to create a sense of realism by duplicating these movements with my joystick alone.


@SkyWhisperer - When I first bought my digital camcorder I wanted to test how well it performed in low light settings.

I was introduced to a new term – the “lux” rating. Apparently this is a rating that the camcorder uses to measure how well it does in low light.

It has a photo cell (or a bunch of photo cells for all I know) that enable it to adjust the shutter and aperture speed in various low light situations. I found that generally it did a good job, but in some situations the images were a bit grainy in low light.

The photo sensor doesn’t really control the ultimate quality of the image; it just makes adjustments so that you can capture as much of the image as possible, with the best clarity.


@everetra - We have a motion detector as part of our home security system and it works okay most of the time.

It uses infrared radiation to detect temperature differences between the environment, and that of a human body passing by. It works correctly most of the time, but if an object has the same temperature as the “default” environment temperature passes by, it won’t pick it up.

In other words, it doesn’t necessarily pick up inanimate objects. This is not necessarily a bad thing; the whole point is to identify real live intruders, after all.

But I had always thought that motion detectors detected motion, pure and simple, before I understood how they worked. They are more accurately described as temperature detectors in my opinion.


In high school I had this Casio calculator with a touch sensor keypad. It wasn’t a scientific calculator or anything like that, just a basic model.

But it had no buttons in the usual sense – the numbered keypad responded to touch. Sometimes this was good and sometimes it was bad. It required less force so it took less effort on my part to “punch” in the numbers for my calculations.

On the other hand, sometimes it was a little too sensitive and I would unintentionally enter in the wrong numbers. Also, as a touch sensitive keypad it was sensitive to dirt and smudge.

If you get too much of that collecting on it then it doesn’t respond as quickly, so you had to keep it clean. Still, it was kind of cool, and it was neat years later to watch science fiction shows where touch sensitive keypads were the basic mode of operation for all their control panels.

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