What is an Ultrasonic Sensor?

An ultrasonic sensor emits sound waves toward an object and determines its distance by detecting reflected waves. (Getty Images)

An ultrasonic sensor is an electronic device that measures the distance of a target object by emitting ultrasonic sound waves, and converts the reflected sound into an electrical signal. Ultrasonic waves travel faster than the speed of audible sound (i.e. the sound that humans can hear). Ultrasonic sensors have two main components: the transmitter (which emits the sound using piezoelectric crystals) and the receiver (which encounters the sound after it has travelled to and from the target).

In order to calculate the distance between the sensor and the object, the sensor measures the time it takes between the emission of the sound by the transmitter to its contact with the receiver. The formula for this calculation is D = ½ T x C (where D is the distance, T is the time, and C is the speed of sound ~ 343 meters/second). For example, if a scientist set up an ultrasonic sensor aimed at a box and it took 0.025 seconds for the sound to bounce back, the distance between the ultrasonic sensor and the box would be:

D = 0.5 x 0.025 x 343

or about 4.2875 meters.

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An ultrasonic sensor emits sound waves toward an object and determines its distance by detecting reflected waves.
Ultrasonic sensor diagram. (Robo Galaxy)

Ultrasonic sensors are used primarily as proximity sensors. They can be found in automobile self-parking technology and anti-collision safety systems. Ultrasonic sensors are also used in robotic obstacle detection systems, as well as manufacturing technology. In comparison to infrared (IR) sensors in proximity sensing applications, ultrasonic sensors are not as susceptible to interference of smoke, gas, and other airborne particles (though the physical components are still affected by variables such as heat).  

Ultrasonic sensors are also used as level sensors to detect, monitor, and regulate liquid levels in closed containers (such as vats in chemical factories). Most notably, ultrasonic technology has enabled the medical industry to produce images of internal organs, identify tumors, and ensure the health of babies in the womb.