Ultrasonic Distant Obstacle Detector

The first sensor a robot usually gets fitted with is an obstacle detector. It may take three different forms, depending on the type of obstacle you want to detect and also — indeed, above all — on the distance at which you want detection to take place. For close or very close obstacles, reflective IR sensors are most often used, an example of such a project appears elsewhere in this blog. These sensors are however limited to distances of a few mm to ten or so mm at most. Another simple and frequently-encountered solution consists of using antennae-like contact detectors or ‘whiskers’, which are nothing more than longer or shorter pieces of piano wire or something similar operating microswitches.

Circuit diagram:

Ultrasonic Distant Obstacle Detector circuit diagram
Ultrasonic Distant Obstacle Detector Circuit Diagram

Detection takes place at a slightly greater distance than with IR sensors, but is still limited to a few cm, as otherwise the whiskers become too long and hinder the robot’s normal movement, as they run the risk of getting caught up in things around it. For obstacles more than a couple of cm away, there is another effective solution, which is to use ultrasound. It’s often tricky to use, as designers think as if they needed to produce a telemeter, when in fact here we’re just looking at detecting the presence or absence of obstacles, not measuring how far away they are. So here we’re suggesting an original approach that makes it possible to reduce the circuit required to a handful of cheap, ordinary components.

 Ultrasonic Distant Obstacle Detector Our solution is based on the howlround or feedback effect all too familiar to sound engineers. This effect, which appears as a more or less violent squealing, occurs when a microphone picks up sound from speakers that are connected to it via an amplifier. Feeding back the output signal from the speaker into the input (the microphone) in this way creates an acoustic oscillator. Our detector works on the same principle, except that the microphone is an ultrasound receiver while the speaker is an ultrasonic emitter. They are linked just by a very easily-built ordinary amplifier. Feedback from the output to the input occurs only when the ultrasonic beam is reflected off the obstacle we are trying to detect.

As Figure 1 shows, the receiver RXUS is connected to the input of a high-gain amplifier using transistors T1 and T2. As the gain of this stage is very high, it can be reduced if necessary by pot P1 to avoid its going into oscillation all on its own, even in the absence of an obstacle. The output of this amplifier is connected to the ultrasonic emitter TXUS, therby forming the loop that is liable to oscillate due to the effect of feedback. When this takes place, i.e. when an obstacle is close enough to the ultrasonic transducers, a pseudo-sine wave signal at their resonant frequency of 40 kHz appears at the amplifier output, i.e. at the terminals of the transmitting transducer.

This signal is rectified by D1 and D2 and filtered by C3 and, if its amplitude is high enough, it produces a current in R6 capable of turning transistor T3 on to a greater or lesser extent. Depending on the nature and distance of the obstacle, this process does not necessarily happen in a completely on/off manner, and so the level available at T3 collector may be quite poorly-defined. The Schmitt CMOS invertors are there to convert it into a logic signal worthy of the name. So in the presence of an obstacle, S1 goes high and S2 goes low. Powering can be from any voltage between 5 and 12 V.

The gain, and hence the circuit’s detection sensitivity, does vary a bit with the supply voltage, but in all cases P1 makes it possible to achieve a satisfactory setting. Although it is very simple, under good conditions this circuit is capable of detecting a normally-ultrasound-reflective obstacle up to around 5 or 6 cm away. If a smaller distance is needed, you simply have to reduce the gain by adjusting P1. Building the circuit is straightforward. Both transducers are 40 kHz types that can be found in any retailers, and the other components couldn’t be more ordinary.

However, one precaution is needed when wiring up the transducers. Even though they aren’t strictly speaking polarized as such, one of their terminals is common with the metal case, and this is the one that must be connected to the circuit earth, on both emitter and receiver. The circuit should work at once, and all you have to do is adjust P1 to set the detection distance you want — but this is also dependent on the positioning of the transducers. For optimum operation, we recommend you angle them as shown in Figure 2.

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