The Vation Ventures Glossary

Actuators: Definition, Explanation, and Use Cases

The term 'actuator' is a fundamental concept in the realm of the Internet of Things (IoT). An actuator is a device that converts energy into motion. It is a key component in any system where control actions are performed. The energy used to drive the actuator can be of various forms, including electrical, hydraulic, pneumatic, or even thermal. The motion created by an actuator can be in any form, such as linear, rotary, or oscillatory. In the context of IoT, actuators play a crucial role in enabling physical devices to interact with their environment.

Actuators are the 'doers' in the IoT ecosystem. They receive signals from a control system or manual input, interpret these signals, and perform a corresponding physical action. This action can be as simple as turning a device on or off, or as complex as adjusting the speed of an industrial machine. The type and complexity of the actuator depend on the specific requirements of the system in which it is used.

Definition of Actuators

At its most basic level, an actuator is a type of motor that is responsible for moving or controlling a mechanism or system. It works in response to a signal received, which could be electrical, mechanical, or optical. The actuator responds by converting this energy into mechanical motion.

The term 'actuator' is derived from the Latin word 'actuare' which means 'to put into action'. This is a fitting description as an actuator essentially puts the command of a control system into action. It is the final element in a control system, and it has a direct impact on the performance of the system.

Types of Energy Used by Actuators

Actuators can be categorized based on the type of energy they use to create motion. Electrical actuators, for instance, use electric current to generate motion. They are commonly used in many devices due to their efficiency, speed, and ease of control. Examples include electric motors and solenoids.

Hydraulic actuators, on the other hand, use the pressure of a liquid to create motion. They are often used in heavy machinery due to their high force and torque capabilities. Pneumatic actuators use the force of compressed gas to generate motion and are commonly used in automation systems.

Types of Motion Created by Actuators

Actuators can also be classified based on the type of motion they create. Linear actuators, as the name suggests, create linear or straight-line motion. This type of motion is commonly used in machine tools and industrial machinery.

Rotary actuators create rotational motion and are commonly used in motors. Oscillatory actuators create oscillating motion and are used in systems that require back and forth movement.

Explanation of How Actuators Work

Regardless of the type of energy they use or the type of motion they create, all actuators work based on the same basic principle. They receive a signal from a control system, convert that signal into a specific type of motion, and use that motion to perform a task or action.

The process begins when the control system sends a signal to the actuator. This signal can be in the form of electrical voltage, hydraulic or pneumatic pressure, or even a mechanical force. The actuator receives this signal and converts it into motion. The type and amount of motion created by the actuator depend on the specifications of the signal received.

Components of an Actuator

An actuator typically consists of three main components: a control signal receiver, a power source, and a mechanical component. The control signal receiver is the part of the actuator that receives the signal from the control system. This can be a simple electrical connection, a hydraulic or pneumatic line, or a mechanical linkage.

The power source is the part of the actuator that provides the energy needed to create motion. This can be an electric motor, a hydraulic pump, a pneumatic compressor, or a spring. The mechanical component is the part of the actuator that actually moves. This can be a shaft, a piston, a gear, or any other type of mechanical device.

Control Systems and Actuators

The relationship between a control system and an actuator is a critical aspect of how actuators work. The control system is the 'brain' of the operation, while the actuator is the 'muscle'. The control system sends signals to the actuator, telling it what action to perform. The actuator then performs the action, providing feedback to the control system about the results of the action.

This feedback allows the control system to adjust its signals to the actuator, ensuring that the system is performing as expected. This continuous loop of command, action, and feedback is what allows a control system and an actuator to work together to perform complex tasks.

Use Cases of Actuators in IoT

Actuators are used in a wide range of applications in the IoT ecosystem. They are used in smart homes to control lighting and heating systems, in industrial automation to control machinery, in healthcare devices to administer medication, and in many other applications.

The use of actuators in IoT is not limited to these examples. As the IoT ecosystem continues to evolve, the use of actuators is expected to become even more widespread. The ability of actuators to convert signals into physical actions makes them a key component in the IoT ecosystem.

Smart Homes

In smart homes, actuators are used to control various systems and devices. For example, an actuator can be used to control the lighting system in a home. When a user commands the system to turn on the lights, the control system sends a signal to the actuator, which then turns on the lights.

Similarly, actuators are used to control heating and cooling systems in a smart home. When the temperature in a room drops below a certain level, the control system sends a signal to the actuator, which then turns on the heating system. The same principle applies to other systems in a smart home, such as security systems, entertainment systems, and even kitchen appliances.

Industrial Automation

Actuators play a crucial role in industrial automation. They are used to control various types of machinery, from simple conveyor belts to complex robotic arms. In a manufacturing plant, for example, actuators are used to control the movement of parts through the production line.

Actuators are also used in automated inspection systems to position cameras and other sensors. They are used in packaging systems to move products into boxes, and in shipping systems to load boxes onto trucks. The use of actuators in industrial automation improves efficiency, reduces errors, and increases safety.

Healthcare Devices

Actuators are used in various healthcare devices, from simple drug delivery systems to complex surgical robots. In a drug delivery system, an actuator is used to control the amount of medication that is administered to a patient. The control system sends a signal to the actuator, which then dispenses the required amount of medication.

In a surgical robot, actuators are used to control the movement of the robot's arms and tools. The surgeon controls the robot using a control system, which sends signals to the actuators. The actuators then move the robot's arms and tools according to the surgeon's commands.


Actuators are a fundamental component in the realm of the Internet of Things. They convert signals into physical actions, enabling devices to interact with their environment. The use of actuators spans across various applications, from smart homes to industrial automation to healthcare devices.

The role of actuators in IoT is expected to grow as the ecosystem continues to evolve. As more devices become connected and more systems become automated, the need for actuators to perform physical actions will increase. Understanding the definition, workings, and use cases of actuators is therefore crucial for anyone involved in the field of IoT.