5 Great Sensors To Get You Motivated

December 08, 2015 by Alex Udanis

5 awesome sensors that you'll want to use on your next project!

Here are five great sensors to get you motivated for your next project. Time to get creative!

Panasonic Grid-Eye - Thermal Sensor

Looking for a low-cost multiple pixel thermal imager? Look no further than the Panasonic Grid-Eye.

The Panasonic Grid-Eye is a small and relatively low cost infrared sensor array.  This sensor behaves like a low resolution IR camera with 64 total pixels. Panasonic lists several applications for this sensor in its datasheet including smart appliances, office automation, and automatic doors. Supporting a temperature range of –20°C to 100°C (low gain version), this sensor could be used for numerous other applications such as gesture recognition or capturing low resolution thermal images. This sensor does have some limitations like a low frame rate and higher cost.  Different variants for this part include a low gain version, a high gain version (with a temperature range of 0°C to 80°C), 3v version, and 5v version.  

Another similar product is the FLIR Lepton; though it's more expensive than the Panasonic, it does offer 4800 pixels.  Three variants, socket, and evaluation board are available. 


Bosch Sensortec - BMP280 - Pressure Sensor

Want an easy way to measure relative altitude without GPS? Take a look at the BMP280!


The Bosch Sensortec BMP280 sensor is a high precision digital pressure sensor.  This sensor is sensitive enough to determine relatively small changes in altitude from changes in air pressure. Potential applications include indoor and outdoor navigation, assistance to GPS receivers, wearable technology, and weather forecasting.  This sensor is used in the iPhone 6 to determine relative altitude.  Due to the small changes in atmospheric pressure that this sensor uses, small environmental changes such as weather, doors opening, and fans can produce unexpected results. 

Adafruit carries several sensors in this family and has an evaluation board here

Bosh has a whole family of sensors with this capability, including BMP180, BMP280, BMP680.  Take a look at Bosh's website for their entire product line. 


ST - VL6180X - Distance Sensor

Ever get frustrated with typical IR distance sensors? The ST VL6180X is here to fix that by using time of flight.

What makes this sensor unique is that instead of measuring the amount of light reflected back, the VL6180X measures the time it takes for light to bounce back.  By measuring the time it takes for the light return to the sensor, more consistent results can be obtained across a wide variety of surfaces.  This sensor can be used in many applications such as smartphones, tablets, robotics, and in industrial settings.  A major limitation of this sensor is its range of 0-10cm. In addition to a distance sensor, this sensor also contains an ambient light sensor.

If a longer range time of flight sensor is needed, take a look at a sensor called the LIDAR LITE manufactured by Pulsed Light.  


Vishay - VEML6070 - UV Sensor

Worried about how much UV light your project is exposed to? The VEML6070 can help!

This sensor is a self-contained module that communicates the amount of UVA light over an I2C bus. This sensor is ideal for monitoring outdoor weather conditions and in wearable technology. With minimal external components needed and a very efficient sleep mode, this sensor is great for small projects.

Vishay isn’t the only manufacture of sensors like these: Silicon Labs has the Si1145 that packs UV, proximity, and ambient light sensors into a single package.  

Sharp - GP2Y1010AU0F - Dust Sensor

Ever want to measure how much dust is in the atmosphere? Sharp’s Dust Sensor has got you covered!

The Sharp GP2Y1010AU0F is a self-contained module that uses the reflective properties of dust and smoke to measure their concentration. The sensor works with the help of an infrared LED, phototransistor, and an amplifier circuit.  The sensor gives an analog out based on the amount of particles in the air. An important note though: in its datasheet it mentions to not use the sensor as a smoke alarm, most likely due to that being a life critical application.  Potential other applications include indoor air quality sensors and air purifier automation.

Just like most sensors, there are several manufacturers of similar sensors such as Amphenol Advanced Sensors with their SM-PWM-01A.  


Think we missed an interesting sensor?  Let us know in the comments!

  • J
    jcubie December 18, 2015

    The dust sensor raises an issue to me.  In the model railroad world we all struggle to maintain clean track.  Many hours are spent cleaning it. There are all sorts of ideas out there on how to clean the track and others—such as applications of graphite - to keep it clean.  My club asked me to decide which method we should use.  I found that no one has ever done tests comparing the different method’s effectiveness.  Is there a sensor that I could use to measure the difference between clean and dirty track?  This sensor senses ambient dust, I need a sensor to compare dirty track to clean track,  This would let me test the alternative cleaning methods.

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    • S
      sailorjoe December 19, 2015
      Jubilee, you have an interesting problem to solve. You're right, the ambient dust sensor won't do it for you. Having thought about it for about ten seconds, I recommend a reflective light sensor. I found some examples at Digikey, but it's only a starting place. There are at least 342 listed. All of the sensors have either a transistor or a photodiode output circuit, which means that the output would need to be amplified by an appropriate op amp circuit. Also, the light output for these sensors will vary depending on the emitting diode forward current, so that needs to be tightly controlled, which also implies a good current control circuit. Your objective would be to mount the sensor on a device that would roll slowly along the track and sense variations in the track reflectivity. If astronomers can detect a planet traversing in front of a star by sensing the change in light intensity from that star, you should be able to make this work. Here are some links to sensor parts. They have varying sensing distances, operating parameters, and sizes. You may even find something better. Reflective light sensors$file/EE_SY193_1010.pdf;filename=AV02-2259EN0.pdf&blobheadervalue2=application/x-download&blobheadervalue3=abinary%3B+charset%3DUTF-8&blobkey=id&blobnocache=true&blobtable=MungoBlobs&blobwhere=1430856336720&ssbinary=true Sailor Joe
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    • T
      TWRackers December 19, 2015
      As a fellow model railroader (among some of my club associates, the term "densha otaku" gets used a lot), I'd think what you're looking for is track that may not look dirty but acts dirty; conductivity is the key. I don't know how practical this is, because your question just gave me the idea, but I see building a rail car with one truck/bogey/bogie/whatever of the type locos use for power pickup, and mounting on it (flatcar?) a circuit that measure current flow between the powered rails through a large enough load so as to pull less current than the locomotove pulling the car, but enough current to get a reading, maybe 10's of milliamps. Convert the current to a voltage, add some low-pass filtering, and feed it into an analog input of a circuit (maybe a really small micro) to detect when the current draw dips. An Adafruit Trinket (not Pro model) will fit nicely on an N-gauge flatcar (or at least the 1:150 Japanese flatcar I just compared with).
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