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Ultrasonic sensor

          Ultrasonic sensors (also known as tranceivers when they both send and receive) work on a principle similar to radar or sonar which evaluate attributes of a target by interpreting the echoes from radio or sound waves respectively. Ultrasonic sensors generate high frequency sound waves and evaluate the echo which is received back by the sensor. Sensors calculate the time interval between sending the signal and receiving the echo to determine the distance to an object.

         This technology can be used for measuring: wind speed and direction (anemometer), fullness of a tank, and speed through air or water. For measuring speed or direction a device uses multiple detectors and calculates the speed from the relative distances to particulates in the air or water. To measure the amount of liquid in a tank, the sensor measures the distance to the surface of the fluid. Further applications include: humidifiers, sonar, medical ultrasonography, burglar alarms, and non-destructive testing.

         Systems typically use a transducer which generates sound waves in the ultrasonic range, above 20,000 hertz, by turning electrical energy into sound, then upon receiving the echo turn the sound waves into electrical energy which can be measured and displayed.

         The technology is limited by the shapes of surfaces and the density or consistency of the material. For example foam on the surface of a fluid in a tank could distort a reading.


        Sound field of a non focusing 4MHz ultrasonic transducer with a near field length of N=67mm in water. The plot shows the sound pressure at a logarithmic db-scale.

         Sound pressure field of the same ultrasonic transducer (4MHz, N=67mm) with the transducer surface having a spherical curvature with the curvature radius R=30mm

         An ultrasonic transducer is a device that converts energy into ultrasound, or sound waves above the normal range of human hearing. While technically a dog whistle is an ultrasonic transducer that converts mechanical energy in the form of air pressure into ultrasonic sound waves, the term is more apt to be used to refer to piezoelectric transducers that convert electrical energy into sound. Piezoelectric crystals have the property of changing size when a voltage is applied, thus applying an alternating current (AC) across them causes them to oscillate at very high frequencies, thus producing very high frequency sound waves.

        The location at which a transducer focuses the sound, can be determined by the active transducer area and shape, the ultrasound frequency and the sound velocity of the propagation medium.

        The example shows the sound fields of an unfocused and a focusing ultrasonic transducer in water.


           Since piezoelectric crystal generate a voltage when force is applied to them, the same crystal can be used as an ultrasonic detector. Some systems use separate transmitter and receiver components while others combine both in a single piezoelectric transceiver.

           Alternative methods for creating and detecting ultrasound include magnetostriction and capacitive actuation.

Use in medicine

           Medical ultrasonic transducers (probes) come in a variety of different shapes and sizes for use in making pictures of different parts of the body. The transducer may be passed over the surface of the body or inserted into an body opening such as the rectum or vagina. Clinicians who perform ultrasound-guided procedures often use a probe positioning system to hold the ultrasonic transducer.

Use in industry

           Ultrasonic sensors are used to detect the presence of targets and to measure the distance to targets in many automated factories and process plants. Sensors with an on or off digital output are available for detecting the presence of objects, and sensors with an analog output which varies proportionally to the sensor to target separation distance are commercially available.

          Other types of transducers are used in commercially available ultrasonic cleaning devices. An ultrasonic transducer is affixed to a stainless steel pan which is filled with a solvent (frequently water or isopropanol) and a square wave is applied to it, imparting vibrational energy on the liquid.

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