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Gowtham Tamilselvan

L03/ Dr. Maxwell


Proximity Sensors in Obstacle Evasion

Proximity sensors can detect objects without any physical contact, this property allows for robotic navigation without collisions [1]. Multiple types of proximity sensors currently exist with each specializing on certain types of surface, metal or concrete, it interacts with to gain accurate readings. This paper focuses on the use of proximity sensors in obstacle evasion for autonomous robotic systems; discusses commercially available products, identifies the functionality of different sensors, and implementation of proximity sensors in autonomous robots.

Commercial Application

Commercial application of proximity sensors is used in many industries such as automotive, cell phone, and robotics to further increase product functionality related to sensing nearby objects.

Automotive industry uses proximity sensors for keyless entry, remote detection, contactless switches, and blind-spot detection. Advances in sensor technology have lead to instruments that now use less energy than before; for example the AD7150 used by automobiles consumes only 90 microamps, resulting in 70% power savings [3]. Cell phone industry has shown greater interest in proximity sensors in recent years due to the increase in touch screen phones. Touch screen phones use proximity sensors to turn off/on their screen depending on the location of the phone, whether the phone is on a person’s hand or near their ear. Robotics industry uses proximity sensors to gather distance and position information. In a Swiss research study, a fruit fly was used to move a robot through an obstacle course; the proximity sensors on the robot send information to corresponding LED screens and as the fly reacts to the LED screen its motion is detected and used to navigate through the course [4].

Manufacturers of proximity sensors include Analog Devices, RS Electronics, and Maxim among others. The cost of a sensor varies accordingly with its operating distance (range), type/shape of sensor, sensing surface’s properties, switching frequency, temperature range, shielded/unshielded sensor, and its manufacturer [6].

Underlying Technology

Proximity sensor detects nearby objects by emitting a electromagnetic field and looking for changes in the field [1]. Different objects being sensed require different type of proximity sensor. There are three types of proximity sensors used in robotics: Infrared/Photoelectric, Capacitive, and Inductive. Photoelectric proximity sensors work by sending out a beam of light and then computing the distance of the object from the reflected signal [5]. In capacitive proximity sensor, the sensed object changes the dielectric constant between the two plates, this process takes a relatively long time. Inductive proximity sensors detect objects using induced magnetic fields; but they are primarily for use with metallic objects [1]. There are two body types for proximity sensors: shielded and unshielded. In a shielded proximity sensor the coil’s magnetic field is radiated only from the sensor’s detection face [2]. In an unshielded proximity sensor the sides are not covered therefore resulting in a higher sensing range [2].

Implementing the Technology

The use of proximity sensors for obstacle evasion involves both hardware and software. The hardware components needed for obstacle evasion are photoelectric/IR sensors and a microcontroller. The sensors need to be lined up with a microcontroller that can analyze the data and respond to the situation. The proximity sensors transmit distance data in terms of an output current to a microcontroller which then determines the direction of robot based on software algorithms. The microcontroller analyzes the sensor data to determine the best possible direction of moved so the instrument does not collide with the object. The Qwikandlow board designed by Dr. Peatmen can be used to implement the system of sensor networks and microchip [7]. But proximity sensors alone cannot create an instrument capable of complete obstacle evasion, since the range of the sensors is limited. Proximity sensors on average have a range of about 30mm, which only helps avoid collision and does not help in guidance through an obstacle course. A sensor with a larger range is necessary to move the instrument efficiently through the course. Proximity sensors cannot fully direct the robot, since it does not know the enough information about the layout of the field. Since the range is so limited the robot has the possibility of getting into a tight area and not be able to get out due to nearby objects. The choice of sensor used depends on the functionality of the mechanism.


[1] “Proximity Sensors,” [Company Website], [cited 2010 Sept 05], Available HTTP:

[2] Guerrino Suffi, "Inductive Proximity Sensors: Design, Selection, Specification and Implementation," Omron Electroncs LLC, Dec. 2005.

[3] "Signal Processing Perspectives: Automotive System Designs," Analog Devices, 2007.

[4] Erico Guizzo, "Cyborg fly pilots robot through obstacle course," IEEE Spectrum, August 2010.

[5] Fargo Controls, INC. (2009) Proximity Sensor. [cited 2010 Sept 05], Available HTTP:

[6] Automation Direct. (2010) Proximity Senor Terminology. [cited 2010 Sept 5] Technical Reference Manual.

[7] Dr. John Peatmen, Coin Cell Powered Embedded Design, 1st ed. Atlanta, USA: Qwik and Low Books,