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A proximity sensor is a sensor able to detect the presence of nearby objects without any physical contact. A proximity sensor often emits an electromagnetic field or a beam of electromagnetic radiation (infrared, for instance), and looks for changes in the field or return signal. The object being sensed is often referred to as the proximity sensor’s target. Different proximity sensor targets demand different sensors. For example, a capacitive proximity sensor or photoelectric sensor might be suitable for a plastic target; an inductive proximity sensor always requires a metal target

Proximity sensors are also used in machine vibration monitoring to measure the variation in distance between a shaft and its support bearing. This is common in large steam turbines, compressors, and motors that use sleeve-type bearings.


Proximity sensors are useful in any application involving detection of an object within a defined range, including:

  • Inspection: detection of broken tool bits or surface defects; quality assurance
  • Positioning: detection of tool position
  • Process control: control of conveyors and processes based on part or level detection; stack height control
  • Transportation: tollbooth control; garage door control
  • Level detection: silos; food processing; bulk material or liquid level sensing and control

The standards listed below all pertain to proximity sensors. Devices may be manufactured, employed, and tested according to these published documents.

  • IEC 60947-5-2 Control circuit devices and switching elements in low-voltage switchgear: DC switching interface for proximity sensors and switching amplifiers
  • FORD ES2 Proximity sensors
  • MIL-S-52868 Capacitance proximity sensors

Capacitive – as the name indicates, these sensors operate by noting a change in the capacitance, capacitance being a function of both electrical charge and voltage between two surfaces with either an air gap or some other material between them, which is the dielectric constant. When an object to be detected enters the field of the sensor, it effects the dielectric and thus changes the capacitance, which is sensed as a change.

Inductive – these types of sensors are based on changing inductance, which is a measure of the ability of inducing a voltage in a conductor as a result of a changing current in a different conductor. Inductive sensors work with metallic objects because these have inductive properties, so can’t be used to detect plastic, for instance.

Also, the type of material sensed will influence the sensing distance. For example, ferromagnetic materials like steel generally have the longest sensing distances, whereas other metals such as aluminum or copper have much shorter sensing distances.

Photoelectric – these sensors operate on the basis of light, dependent on a change in the amount of light available to a detector in the sensor. There are two basic types of photoelectric sensor; reflective, and through-beam. Reflective sensors work by emitting a beam of light that strikes the object and is reflected back to the detector, usually in the same physical housing as the emitter beam. Through-beam sensors, on the other hand, have two separate units, an emitter or source of light and a separate receiver or detector. When an object breaks the light beam, the detector registers this break.

Ultrasonic – these sensors use sound waves to detect objects. They emit a high frequency sound wave (higher than human ears can detect) and when it strikes an object it’s reflected back to the sensor where the distance of the object can be calculated based on the time required for it to return. They’re used in applications to measure distance of objects, such as in automotive park-assist functions, and in bottling and filling applications to detect fluid levels.

Eddy Current – Similar to inductive sensors; could be considered high-end inductive types.

Hall Effect / Magnetic –  Measures the presence or absence of object based on an external magnetic field.

Source : Wikipedia, Globalspec, Motioncontroltips

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