What is a proximity sensor?

An essential sensing function is the ability to detect the presence or proximity of an object. (Getty Images)

A proximity sensor is a non-contact sensor that detects the presence of an object (often referred to as the “target”) when the target enters the sensor’s field. Depending on the type of proximity sensor, sound, light, infrared radiation (IR), or electromagnetic fields may be utilized by the sensor to detect a target. Proximity sensors are used in phones, recycling plants, self-driving cars, anti-aircraft systems, and assembly lines. There are many types of proximity sensors, and they each sense targets in distinct ways. The two most commonly used proximity sensors are the inductive proximity sensor and the capacitive proximity sensor.  

An inductive proximity sensor can only detect metal targets. This is because the sensor utilizes an electromagnetic field. When a metal target enters the electromagnetic field, the inductive characteristics of the metal change the field’s properties, thereby alerting the proximity sensor of the presence of a metallic target. Depending on how inductive the metal is, the target can be detected at either a greater or shorter distance.

Capacitive proximity sensors, on the other hand, are not limited to metallic targets. These proximity sensors are capable of detecting anything that can carry an electrical charge. Capacitive sensors are commonly used in liquid-level detection. Possible targets for capacitive sensors include but are but not limited to: glass, plastic, water, wood, metals, and a myriad of targets of other materials.

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Diagram of Reflective Photoelectric Sensor.
Diagram of Reflective Photoelectric Sensor.  Source: Omron

Another type of proximity sensor is called a photoelectric proximity sensor. There are two main types of photoelectric proximity sensors: reflective and through-beam. Reflective proximity sensors detect objects when the light emitted from the sensor is reflected back at the photoelectric receiver. Through-beam sensors detect targets when the target breaks the beam of light between the sensor’s emitter and receiver. 

Two other commonly used proximity sensors are the magnetic proximity sensors and ultrasonic proximity sensors. Magnetic proximity sensors are only used to detect permanent magnets. Ultrasonic proximity sensors emit a high pitch sound. The distance between the sensor and the target is determined by how long the sound takes to reflect back to the sensor.

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