Proximity sensing is the ability of a robot to tell when it is near an object, or when something is near it. This sense keeps a robot from running into things. It can also be used to measure the distance from a robot to some object.
The simplest proximity sensors do not measure distance. A bumper can be passive, simply making the robot bounce away from things it hits. More often, a bumper has a switch that closes when it makes contact, sending a signal to the controller causing the robot to back away. When whiskers hit something, they vibrate. This can be detected, and a signal sent to the robot controller.
A photoelectric proximity sensor uses a light-beam generator, a photodetector, a special amplifier, and a microprocessor. The light beam reflects from an object and is picked up by the photodetector. The light beam is modulated at a specific frequency, and the detector has a frequency-sensitive amplifier that responds only to light modulated at that frequency. This prevents false imaging that might otherwise be caused by lamps or sunlight. If the robot is approaching a light-reflecting object, its microprocessor senses that the reflected beam is getting stronger. The robot can then steer clear of the object. This method of proximity sensing won't work for black objects, or for things like windows or mirrors approached at a sharp angle.
An acoustic proximity sensor works on the same principle as sonar. A pulsed signal, having a frequency somewhat above the range of human hearing, is generated by an oscillator . This signal is fed to a transducer that emits ultrasound pulses at various frequencies in a coded sequence. These pulses reflect from nearby objects and are returned to another transducer, which converts the ultrasound back into high-frequency pulses. The return pulses are amplified and sent to the robot controller. The delay between the transmitted and received pulses is timed, and this will give an indication of the distance to the obstruction. The pulse coding prevents errors that might otherwise occur because of confusion between adjacent pulses.
A capacitive proximity sensor uses a radio-frequency ( RF ) oscillator, a frequency detector, and a metal plate connected into the oscillator circuit. The oscillator is designed so that a change in the capacitance of the plate, with respect to the environment, causes the frequency to change. This change is sensed by the frequency detector, which sends a signal to the apparatus that controls the robot. In this way, a robot can avoid bumping into things. Objects that conduct electricity to some extent, such as house wiring, animals, cars, or refrigerators, are sensed more easily by capacitive transducers than are things that do not conduct, like wood-frame beds and dry masonry walls.