What Is Data Acquisition?

Data acquisition (DAQ) is the process of measuring an electrical or physical phenomenon such as voltage, current, temperature, pressure, or sound with a computer. A DAQ system consists of sensors, DAQ measurement hardware, and a computer with programmable software. Compared to traditional measurement systems, PC-based DAQ systems exploit the processing power, productivity, display, and connectivity capabilities of industry-standard computers providing a more powerful, flexible, and cost-effective measurement solution.

What Is a Sensor?

The measurement of a physical phenomenon, such as the temperature of a room, the intensity of a light source, or the force applied to an object, begins with a sensor. A sensor, also called a transducer, converts a physical phenomenon into a measurable electrical signal. Depending on the type of sensor, its electrical output can be a voltage, current, resistance, or another electrical attribute that varies over time. Some sensors may require additional components and circuitry to properly produce a signal that can accurately and safely be read by a DAQ device.

Learn the fundamentals of how common sensors work

Common Sensors

Sensor Phenomenon
Thermocouple, RTD, Thermistor Temperature
Photo Sensor Light
Microphone Sound
Strain Gage, Piezoelectric Transducer Force and Pressure
Potentiometer, LVDT, Optical Encoder Position and Displacement
Accelerometer Acceleration
pH Electrode pH

More Information About Choosing and Using Sensors

Read the how-to guide for measuring common sensors

What Is a DAQ Device?

DAQ hardware acts as the interface between a computer and signals from the outside world. It primarily functions as a device that digitizes incoming analog signals so that a computer can interpret them. The three key components of a DAQ device used for measuring a signal are the signal conditioning circuitry, analog-to-digital converter (ADC), and computer bus. Many DAQ devices include other functions for automating measurement systems and processes. For example, digital-to-analog converters (DACs) output analog signals, digital I/O lines input and output digital signals, and counter/timers count and generate digital pulses.

Review five questions to ask when choosing your DAQ device

Key Measurement Components of a DAQ Device

Signal Conditioning

Signals from sensors or the outside world can be noisy or too dangerous to measure directly. Signal conditioning circuitry manipulates a signal into a form that is suitable for input into an ADC. This circuitry can include amplification, attenuation, filtering, and isolation. Some DAQ devices include built-in signal conditioning designed for measuring specific types of sensors.

Learn more about the different types of signal conditioning

Analog-to-Digital Converter (ADC)

Analog signals from sensors must be converted into digital before they are manipulated by digital equipment such as a computer. An ADC is a chip that provides a digital representation of an analog signal at an instant in time. In practice, analog signals continuously vary over time and an ADC takes periodic “samples” of the signal at a predefined rate. These samples are transferred to a computer over a computer bus where the original signal is reconstructed from the samples in software.

Learn the basics of analog sampling

Computer Bus

DAQ devices connect to a computer through a slot or port. The computer bus serves as the communication interface between the DAQ device and computer for passing instructions and measured data. DAQ devices are offered on the most common computer buses including USB, PCI, PCI Express, and Ethernet. More recently, DAQ devices have become available for 802.11 Wi-Fi for wireless communication. There are many types of buses, and each offers different advantages for different types of applications.

Learn how to choose the right bus for your application

Sensors | DAQ Boards and Devices | Computer and Software

What Is a Computer’s Role in a DAQ System?

A computer with programmable software controls the operation of the DAQ device and is used for processing, visualizing, and storing measurement data. Different types of computers are used in different types of applications. A desktop may be used in a lab for its processing power, a laptop may be used in the field for its portability, or an industrial computer may be used in a manufacturing plant for its ruggedness.

Read more about how to choose the right computer for your application

What Are the Different Software Components in a DAQ System?

Driver Software

Driver software provides application software the ability to interact with a DAQ device. It simplifies communication with the DAQ device by abstracting low-level hardware commands and register-level programming. Typically, DAQ driver software exposes an application programming interface (API) that is used within a programming environment to build application software.

Read the important things you should consider when evaluating driver software

Application Software

Application software facilitates the interaction between the computer and user for acquiring, analyzing, and presenting measurement data. It is either a prebuilt application with predefined functionality, or a programming environment for building applications with custom functionality. Custom applications are often used to automate multiple functions of a DAQ device, perform signal-processing algorithms, and display custom user interfaces.

Read five things you should consider when choosing application software

Learn how to choose the right visualization tools for your application

Review questions for how to choose the right data reporting tools for your application

Sensors | DAQ Boards and Devices | Computer and Software