Choosing a Contactless Sensor to Measure Objects at a Distance

Three options come to mind for determining which contactless sensor to use when measuring objects at a distance: photoelectric sensors, ultrasonic sensors, and radar detection. Understanding the key differences among these types of technologies and how they work can help you decide which technology will work best for your application.

Photoelectric sensor

The photoelectric sensor has an emitter that sends out a light source. Then a receiver receives the light source. The common light source LED (Light Emitting Diodes), has three different types:

    • Visible light (usually red light) has the shortest wavelength, but allows for easy installment and alignment as the light can be seen.
    • Lasers are amplified beams that can deliver a large amount of energy over a distance into a small spot, allowing for precise measurement.
    • Infrared light is electromagnetic radiation with wavelengths longer than visible light, generally making them invisible to the humans. This allows for infrared to be used in harsher environments that contain particles in the air.

Along with three types of LEDs, are three models of photoelectric sensors:

    • The retro-reflective sensor model includes both an emitter and receiver in one unit and a reflector across from it. The emitter sends the light source to the reflector which then reflects the light back to the receiver. When an object comes between the reflector and the emitter, the light source cannot be reflected.
    • The through-beam sensor has an emitter and receiver in two separate units installed across from the emitter. When an object breaks the light beam, the receiver cannot receive the light source.
    • The diffuse sensor includes an emitter and receiver built into one unit. Rather than having a reflector installed across from it the light source is reflective off the object back to the receiver.

The most common application for photoelectric sensors is in detecting part presence or absence. Photoelectric sensors do not work well in environments that have dirt, dust, or vibration. They also do not perform well with detecting clear or shiny objects.

Ultrasonic sensor

The ultrasonic sensor has an emitter that sends a sound wave at a frequency higher than what a human can hear to the receiver.  The two modes of an ultrasonic sensor include:

    • Echo mode, also known as a diffused mode, has an emitter and receiver built into the same unit. The object detection works with this mode is that the emitter sends out the sound wave, the wave then bounces off the target and returns to the receiver. The distance of an object can be determined by timing how long it takes for the sound wave to bounce back to the receiver.
    • The second type of mode is the opposed mode. The opposed mode has the emitter and receiver as two separate units. Object detection for this mode works by the emitter will be set up across from the receiver and will be sending sound waves continuously and an object will be detected once it breaks the field, similarly to how photoelectric sensors work.

Common applications for ultrasonic sensors include liquid level detection, uneven surface level detection, and sensing clear or transparent objects. They can also be used as substitutes for applications that are not suitable for photoelectric sensors.

Ultrasonic sensors do not work well, however, in environments that have foam, vapors, and dust. The reason for this is that ultrasonic uses sound waves need a medium, such as air, to travel through. Particles or other obstructions in the air interfere with the sound waves being produced. Also, ultrasonic sensors do not work in vacuums which don’t contain air.

Radar detection

Radar is a system composed of a transmitter, a transmitting antenna, a receiving antenna, a receiver, and a processor. It works like a diffuse mode ultrasonic sensor. The transmitter sends out a wave, the wave echoes off an object, and the receiver receives the wave. Unlike a sound wave, the radar uses pulsed or continuous radio waves. These wavelengths are longer than infrared light and can determine the range, angle, and velocity of objects. radar also has a processor that determines the properties of the object.

Common applications for radar include speed and distance detection, aircraft detection, ship detection, spacecraft detection, and weather formations. Unlike ultrasonic sensors, radar can work in environments that contain foam, vapors, or dust. They can also be used in vacuums. Radio waves are a form of electromagnetic waves that do not require a transmission medium to travel. An application in which radar does not perform well is detecting dry powders and grains. These substances have low dielectric constants, which are usually non-conductive and have low amounts of moisture.

Choosing from an ultrasonic sensor, photoelectric sensor, or radar comes down to the technology being used. LEDs are great at detecting part presences and absence of various sizes. Sound waves are readily able to detect liquid levels, uneven surfaces, and part presence. Electromagnetic waves can be used in environments that include particles and other substances in the air. It also works in environments where air is not present at all. One technology is not better than the other; each has its strengths and its weaknesses. Where one cannot work, the others typically can.

Level Detection Basics – Part 2

In the first blog on level detection we discussed containers and single point and continuous level sensing.  In this edition we will discuss invasive and non-invasive sensing methods and which sensing technologies apply to each version.  Keep in mind that when we are talking about level detection the media can be a liquid, semi-solid or solid with each presenting their own challenges.

tankInvasive or direct level sensing involves the sensing device being in direct contact to the media being sensed.  This means that the container walls or any piping must be violated leading to issue number one – leakage.  In some industries such as semiconductor and medical the sensing device cannot contact the media due to the possibility of contamination.

level_btl-sf-wThe direct mounting method could simplify sensor selection and setup since the sensor only has to sense the medium or target material properties.  Nonetheless, this approach imposes certain drawbacks, such as costs for mounting and sealing the sensor as well as the need to consider the material compatibility between the sensor and the medium.  Corrosive acids, for example, might require a more expensive exotic housing material.level_bsp_w

Invasive sensing technologies that would solve level sensing applications include capacitive, linear transducers, hydrostatic with pressure sensors.

In many cases the preferred approach is indirectly or non-invasively mounting the sensor on the outside of the container.  This sensing method requires the sensor to “see” through the container walls or by looking down at the media from above the container through an opening in the top of the container.  The advantages for this approach are easier mounting, lower cost and easier to field retro-fit.  The container wall does not have to be penetrated, which leaves the level sensor flexible and interchangeable in the application.  Avoiding direct contact with the target material also reduces the chances of product contamination, leaks, and other sources of risk to personnel and the environment.

level_bglIn some cases a sight glass is used which is mounted in the wall of the tank and as the liquid media rises it flows into the sight glass.  When using a sight glass a fork style photoelectric sensor can be used or a capacitive sensor can be strapped to the sight glass.

The media also has relevance in the sensor selection process.  Medical and semiconductor applications involve mostly water-based reagents, process fluids, acids, as well as different bodily fluids.  Fortunately, high conductivity levels and therefore high relative dielectric constants are common characteristics among all these liquids.  This is why the primary advantages of capacitive sensors lie in non-invasive liquid level detection, namely by creating a large measurement delta between the low dielectric container and the target material with high dielectric properties.  At the same time, highly conductivity liquids could impose a threat to the application.  This is because smaller physical amounts of material have a larger impact on the capacitive sensor with increasing conductivity values, increasing the risk of false triggering on foam or adherence to the inside or outside wall.

Non-invasive or indirect level sensing technologies include photoelectrics, capacitive, linear transducers with a sight glass and ultrasonics.

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Requirements for Sanitary Fill Level Sensors

In a previous entry here on the SensorTech blog, we discussed the concept of liquid level sensing, and the difference between discrete liquid level detection and continuous liquid level monitoring.  In this entry, we are going to talk about the requirements for liquid level sensors that are used to measure or monitor liquid products that will ultimately be consumed by humans.

In these applications, it is necessary and critical that sanitary standards be met and maintained.  Sensor designed for sanitary applications are usually designed from the ground up to meet these requirements.

Basically, there are two key criteria that come into play when considering the suitability of a sensor to be used in a sanitary environment:

  • Cleanability – Sanitary filling systems typically need to be regularly cleaned and/or sterilized to prevent the growth of potentially harmful bacteria. It is desirable in most cases that the cleaning/sterilization process be done as quickly and as easily as possible, without having to remove components (including sensors) from the system.  For this reason, many sanitary fill sensors are designed to withstand “cleaning-in-place” (CIP).  Factors such as water-tightness, and ability to withstand elevated cleaning solution temperatures come into play for CIP suitability.
  • Mechanical Sensor Design – Sensors for sanitary fill applications are usually designed such that there are no mechanical features that would allow liquid or debris to collect. Crevices, grooves, seams, etc. can all act as collection points for liquid, and can ultimately lead to contamination.  For this reason, sanitary sensors are designed without such features.  The physical make-up of the sensor surface is also important.  Exterior surfaces need to be very smooth and non-reactive (e.g. high-grade stainless steel).  Such materials also contribute to cleanability.

Consistent standards for sanitary equipment, products, and processes are defined and maintained by 3-A SSI, a not-for-profit entity that provides consistent, controlled, and documented standards and certifications for manufacturers and users of sanitary equipment, particularly in the food, beverage, and pharmaceutical industries.  Equipment that meets these sanitary standards will usually display the 3-A symbol. For more information on this solution visit the Balluff website.