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Robotics Technology - Sensors

Most robots of today are nearly deaf and blind.  Sensors can provide some limited feedback to the robot so it can do its job.  Compared to the senses and abilities of even the simplest living things, robots have a very long way to go. 

The sensor sends information, in the form of electronic signals back to the cfontroller.  Sensors also give the robot controller information about its surroundings and lets it know the exact position of the arm, or the state of the world around it. 
Sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell are the kinds of information we get from our world.  Robots can be designed and programmed to get specific information that is beyond what our 5 senses can tell us. For instance, a robot sensor might "see" in the dark, detect tiny amounts of invisible radiation or measure movement that is too small or fast for the human eye to see.

Here are some things sensors are used for:

Physical Property


Contact Bump, Switch
Distance Ultrasound, Radar, Infra Red
Light Level Photo Cells, Cameras
Sound Level microphones
Strain Strain Gauges
Rotation Encoders
Magnetism Compasses
Smell Chemical
Temperature Thermal, Infra Red
Inclination Inclinometers, Gyroscope
Pressure Pressure Gauges
Altitude Altimeters

    Sensors can be made simple and complex, depending on how much information needs to be stored.  A switch is a simple on/off sensor used for turning the robot on and off.  A human retina is a complex sensor that uses more than a hundred million photosensitive elements (rods and cones).  Sensors provide information to the robots brain, which can be treated in various ways.  For example, we can simply react to the sensor output: if the switch is open, if the switch is closed, go. 

Levels of Processing

    To figure out if the switch is open or closed, you will need to measure the voltage going through the circuit, that's electronics.  Now lets say that you have a microphone and you want to recognize a voice and separate it from noise; that's signal processing.  Now you have a camera, and you want to take the pre-processed image and now you need to figure out what those objects are, perhaps by comparing them to a large library of drawings; that's computation.  Sensory data processing is a very complex thing to try and do but the robot needs this in order to have a "brain".  The brain has to have analog or digital processing capabilities, wires to connect everything, support electronics to go with the computer, and batteries to provide power for the whole thing, in order to process the sensory data.  Perception requires the robot to have sensors (power and electronics), computation (more power and electronics, and connectors (to connect it all). 

Switch Sensors

 Switches are the simplest sensors of all.  They work without processing, at the electronics (circuit) level.  Their general underlying principle is that of an open vs. closed circuit.  If a switch is open, no current can flow; if it is closed, current can flow and be detected.  This simple principle can (and is) used in a wide variety of ways.

Switch sensors can be used in a variety of ways:

  • contact sensors: detect when the sensor has contacted another object (e.g., triggers when a robot hits a wall or grabs an object; these can even be whiskers)

  • limit sensors: detect when a mechanism has moved to the end of its range

  • shaft encoder sensors: detects how many times a shaft turns by having a switch click (open/close) every time the shaft turns (e.g., triggers for each turn, allowing for counting rotations)

   There are many common switches: button switches, mouse switches, key board keys, phone keys, and others.  Depending on how a switch is wired, it can be normally open or normally closed.  This would of course depend on your robot's electronics, mechanics, and its task.  The simplest yet extremely useful sensor for a robot is a "bump switch" that tells it when it's bumped into something, so it can back up and turn away. Even for such a simple idea, there are many different ways of implementation.

Light Sensors

Switches measure physical contact and light sensors measure the amount of light impacting a photocell, which is basically a resistive sensor.  The resistance of a photocell is low when it is brightly illuminated, i.e., when it is very light; it is high when it is dark.  In that sense, a light sensor is really a "dark" sensor.  In setting up a photocell sensor, you will end up using the equations we learned above, because you will need to deal with the relationship of the photocell resistance photo, and the resistance and voltage in your electronics sensor circuit.  Of course since you will be building the electronics and writing the program to measure and use the output of the light sensor, you can always manipulate it to make it simpler and more intuitive.  What surrounds a light sensor affects its properties.  The sensor can be  shielded and positioned in various ways.  Multiple sensors can be arranged in useful configurations and isolate them from each other with shields.

Just like switches, light sensors can be used in many different ways:

  • Light sensors can measure:

    • light intensity (how light/dark it is)

    • differential intensity (difference between photocells)

    • break-beam (change/drop in intensity)

  • Light sensors can be shielded and focused in different ways

  • Their position and directionality on a robot can make a great deal of difference and impact

Polarized light

"Normal" light emanating from a source is non-polarized, which means it travels at all orientations with respect to the horizon.  However, if there is a polarizing filter in front of a light source, only the light waves of a given orientation of the filter will pass through.  This is useful because now we can manipulate this remaining light with other filters; if we put it through another filter with the same characteristic plane, almost all of it will get through.  But, if we use a perpendicular filter (one with a 90-degree relative characteristic angle), we will block all of the light.  Polarized light can be used to make specialized sensors out of simple photocells; if you put a filter in front of a light source and the same or a different filter in front of a photocell, you can cleverly manipulate what and how much light you detect. 

Resistive Position Sensors

    We said earlier that a photocell is a resistive device.  We can also sense resistance in response to other physical properties, such as bending.  The resistance of the device increases with the amount it is bent.  These bend sensors were originally developed for video game control (for example, Nintendo Powerglove), and are generally quite useful.  Notice that repeated bending will wear out the sensor.  Not surprisingly, a bend sensor is much less robust than light sensors, although they use the same underlying resistive principle.


    These devices are very common for manual tuning; you have probably seen them in some controls (such as volume and tone on stereos).  Typically called pots, they allow the user to manually adjust the resistance.  The general idea is that the device consists of a movable tap along two fixed ends.  As the tap is moved, the resistance changes.  As you can imagine, the resistance between the two ends is fixed, but the resistance between the movable part and either end varies as the part is moved.  In robotics, pots are commonly used to sense and tune position for sliding and rotating mechanisms.

Biological Analogs

  • All of the sensors we described exist in biological systems

  • Touch/contact sensors with much more precision and complexity in all species

  • Bend/resistance receptors in muscles 

Reflective Optosensors

    We mentioned that if we use a light bulb in combination with a photocell, we can make a break-beam sensor. This idea is the underlying principle in reflective optosensors: the sensor consists of an emitter and a detector. Depending of the arrangement of those two relative to each other, we can get two types of sensors:

reflectance sensors (the emitter and the detector are next to each other, separated by a barrier; objects are detected when the light is reflected off them and back into the detector)

break-beam sensors (the emitter and the detector face each other; objects are detected if they interrupt the beam of light between the emitter and the detector)

    The emitter is usually made out of a light-emitting diode (an LED), and the detector is usually a photodiode/phototransistor.

    Note that these are not the same technology as resistive photocells. Resistive photocells are nice and simple, but their resistive properties make them slow; photodiodes and photo-transistors are much faster and therefore the preferred type of technology.

What can you do with this simple idea of light reflectivity? Quite a lot of useful things:

  • object presence detection

  • object distance detection

  • surface feature detection (finding/following markers/tape)

  • wall/boundary tracking

  • rotational shaft encoding (using encoder wheels with ridges or black & white color)

  • bar code decoding

    Note, however, that light reflectivity depends on the color (and other properties) of a surface. A light surface will reflect light better than a dark one, and a black surface may not reflect it at all, thus appearing invisible to a light sensor. Therefore, it may be harder (less reliable) to detect darker objects this way than lighter ones. In the case of object distance, lighter objects that are farther away will seem closer than darker objects that are not as far away. This gives you an idea of how the physical world is partially-observable. Even though we have useful sensors, we do not have complete and completely accurate information.

    Another source of noise in light sensors is ambient light. The best thing to do is subtract the ambient light level out of the sensor reading, in order to detect the actual change in the reflected light, not the ambient light. How is that done? By taking two (or more, for higher accuracy) readings of the detector, one with the emitter on, and one with it off, and subtracting the two values from each other. The result is the ambient light level, which can then be subtracted from future readings. This process is called sensor calibration. Of course, remember that ambient light levels can change, so the sensors may need to be calibrated repeatedly.

Break-beam Sensors

    We already talked about the idea of break-beam sensors. In general, any pair of compatible emitter-detector devices can be used to produce such a sensors:

  • an incandescent flashlight bulb and a photocell

  • red LEDs and visible-light-sensitive photo-transistors

  • or infra-red IR emitters and detectors

Shaft Encoding

Shaft encoders measure the angular rotation of an axle providing position and/or velocity info. For example, a speedometer measures how fast the wheels of a vehicle are turning, while an odometer measures the number of rotations of the wheels.

In order to detect a complete or partial rotation, we have to somehow mark the turning element. This is usually done by attaching a round disk to the shaft, and cutting notches into it. A light emitter and detector are placed on each side of the disk, so that as the notch passes between them, the light passes, and is detected; where there is no notch in the disk, no light passes.

If there is only one notch in the disk, then a rotation is detected as it happens. This is not a very good idea, since it allows only a low level of resolution for measuring speed: the smallest unit that can be measured is a full rotation. Besides, some rotations might be missed due to noise.

Usually, many notches are cut into the disk, and the light hits impacting the detector are counted. (You can see that it is important to have a fast sensor here, if the shaft turns very quickly.)

An alternative to cutting notches in the disk is to paint the disk with black (absorbing, non-reflecting) and white (highly reflecting) wedges, and measure the reflectance. In this case, the emitter and the detector are on the same side of the disk.

In either case, the output of the sensor is going to be a wave function of the light intensity. This can then be processes to produce the speed, by counting the peaks of the waves.

Note that shaft encoding measures both position and rotational velocity, by subtracting the difference in the position readings after each time interval. Velocity, on the other hand, tells us how fast a robot is moving, or if it is moving at all. There are multiple ways to use this measure:

  • measure the speed of a driven (active) wheel

  • use a passive wheel that is dragged by the robot (measure forward progress)

We can combine the position and velocity information to do more sophisticated things:

  • move in a straight line

  • rotate by an exact amount

Note, however, that doing such things is quite difficult, because wheels tend to slip (effector noise and error) and slide and there is usually some slop and backlash in the gearing mechanism. Shaft encoders can provide feedback to correct the errors, but having some error is unavoidable.

Quadrature Shaft Encoding

So far, we've talked about detecting position and velocity, but did not talk about direction of rotation. Suppose the wheel suddenly changes the direction of rotation; it would be useful for the robot to detect that.

An example of a common system that needs to measure position, velocity, and direction is a computer mouse. Without a measure of direction, a mouse is pretty useless. How is direction of rotation measured?

Quadrature shaft encoding is an elaboration of the basic break-beam idea; instead of using only one sensor, two are needed. The encoders are aligned so that their two data streams coming from the detector and one quarter cycle (90-degrees) out of phase, thus the name "quadrature". By comparing the output of the two encoders at each time step with the output of the previous time step, we can tell if there is a direction change. When the two are sampled at each time step, only one of them will change its state (i.e., go from on to off) at a time, because they are out of phase. Which one does it determines which direction the shaft is rotating. Whenever a shaft is moving in one direction, a counter is incremented, and when it turns in the opposite direction, the counter is decremented, thus keeping track of the overall position.

Other uses of quadrature shaft encoding are in robot arms with complex joints (such as rotary/ball joints; think of your knee or shoulder), Cartesian robots (and large printers) where an arm/rack moves back and forth along an axis/gear.

Modulation and Demodulation of Light

We mentioned that ambient light is a problem because it interferes with the emitted light from a light sensor. One way to get around this problem is to emit modulated light, i.e., to rapidly turn the emitter on and off. Such a signal is much easier and more reliably detected by a demodulator, which is tuned to the particular frequency of the modulated light. Not surprisingly, a detector needs to sense several on-flashes in a row in order to detect a signal, i.e., to detect its frequency. This is a small point, but it is important in writing demodulator code.

The idea of modulated IR light is commonly used; for example in household remote controls.

Modulated light sensors are generally more reliable than basic light sensors. They can be used for the same purposes: detecting the presence of an object measuring the distance to a nearby object (clever electronics required, see your course notes)

Infra Red (IR) Sensors

Infra red sensors are a type of light sensors, which function in the infra red part of the frequency spectrum.  IR sensors consist are active sensors: they consist of an emitter and a receiver.  IR sensors are used in the same ways that visible light sensors are that we have discussed so far: as break-beams and as reflectance sensors.  IR is preferable to visible light in robotics (and other) applications because it suffers a bit less from ambient interference, because it can be easily modulated, and simply because it is not visible.

IR Communication

Modulated infra red can be used as a serial line for transmitting messages. This is is fact how IR modems work. Two basic methods exist:

  • bit frames (sampled in the middle of each bit; assumes all bits take the same amount of time to transmit)

  • bit intervals (more common in commercial use; sampled at the falling edge, duration of interval between sampling determines whether it's a 0 or 1)

Ultrasonic Distance Sensing

As we mentioned before, ultrasound sensing is based on the time-of-flight principle. The emitter produces a sonar "chirp" of sound, which travels away from the source, and, if it encounters barriers, reflects from them and returns to the receiver (microphone). The amount of time it takes for the sound beam to come back is tracked (by starting a timer when the "chirp" is produced, and stopping it when the reflected sound returns), and is used to compute the distance the sound traveled. This is possible (and quite easy) because we know how fast sound travels; this is a constant, which varies slightly based on ambient temperature.

At room temperature, sound travels at 1.12 feet per millisecond. Another way to put it that sound travels at 0.89 milliseconds per foot. This is a useful constant to remember.

The process of finding one's location based on sonar is called echolocation. The inspiration for ultrasound sensing comes from nature; bats use ultrasound instead of vision (this makes sense; they live in very dark caves where vision would be largely useless). Bat sonars are extremely sophisticated compared to artificial sonars; they involve numerous different frequencies, used for finding even the tiniest fast-flying prey, and for avoiding hundreds of other bats, and communicating for finding mates.

Specular Reflection

A major disadvantage of ultrasound sensing is its susceptibility to specular reflection (specular reflection means reflection from the outer surface of the object). While the sonar sensing principle is based on the sound wave reflecting from surfaces and returning to the receiver, it is important to remember that the sound wave will not necessarily bounce off the surface and "come right back." In fact, the direction of reflection depends on the incident angle of the sound beam and the surface. The smaller the angle, the higher the probability that the sound will merely "graze" the surface and bounce off, thus not returning to the emitter, in turn generating a false long/far-away reading. This is often called specular reflection, because smooth surfaces, with specular properties, tend to aggravate this reflection problem. Coarse surfaces produce more irregular reflections, some of which are more likely to return to the emitter. (For example, in our robotics lab on campus, we use sonar sensors, and we have lined one part of the test area with cardboard, because it has much better sonar reflectance properties than the very smooth wall behind it.)

In summary, long sonar readings can be very inaccurate, as they may result from false rather than accurate reflections. This must be taken into account when programming robots, or a robot may produce very undesirable and unsafe behavior. For example, a robot approaching a wall at a steep angle may not see the wall at all, and collide with it!

Nonetheless, sonar sensors have been successfully used for very sophisticated robotics applications, including terrain and indoor mapping, and remain a very popular sensor choice in mobile robotics.

The first commercial ultrasonic sensor was produced by Polaroid, and used to automatically measure the distance to the nearest object (presumably which is being photographed). These simple Polaroid sensors still remain the most popular off-the-shelf sonars (they come with a processor board that deals with the analog electronics). Their standard properties include:

  • 32-foot range

  • 30-degree beam width

  • sensitivity to specular reflection

  • shortest distance return

Polaroid sensors can be combined into phased arrays to create more sophisticated and more accurate sensors.

One can find ultrasound used in a variety of other applications; the best known one is ranging in submarines. The sonars there have much more focused and have longer-range beams. Simpler and more mundane applications involve automated "tape-measures", height measures, burglar alarms, etc.

Machine Vision

So far, we have talked about relatively simple sensors. They were simple in terms of processing of the information they returned. Now we turn to machine vision, i.e., to cameras as sensors.

Cameras, of course, model biological eyes. Needless to say, all biological eyes are more complex than any camera we know today, but, as you will see, the cameras and machine vision systems that process their perceptual information, are not simple at all! In fact, machine vision is such a challenging topic that it has historically been a separate branch of Artificial Intelligence.

The general principle of a camera is that of light, scattered from objects in the environment (those are called the scene), goes through an opening ("iris", in the simplest case a pin hole, in the more sophisticated case a lens), and impinging on what is called the image plane. In biological systems, the image plane is the retina, which is attached to numerous rods and cones (photosensitive elements) which, in turn, are attached to nerves which perform so-called "early vision", and then pass information on throughout the brain to do "higher-level" vision processing. As we mentioned before, a very large percentage of the human (and other animal) brain is dedicated to visual processing, so this is a highly complex endeavor.

In cameras, instead of having photosensitive rhodopsin and rods and cones, we use silver halides on photographic film, or silicon circuits in charge-coupled devices (CCD) cameras. In all cases, some information about the incoming light (e.g., intensity, color) is detected by these photosensitive elements on the image plane.

In machine vision, the computer must make sense out of the information it gets on the image plane. If the camera is very simple, and uses a tiny pin hole, then some computation is required to compute the projection of the objects from the environment onto the image plane (note, they will be inverted). If a lens is involved (as in vertebrate eyes and real cameras), then more light can get in, but at the price of being focused; only objects a particular range of distances from the lens will be in focus. This range of distances is called the camera's depth of field.

The image plane is usually subdivided into equal parts, called pixels, typically arranged in a rectangular grid. In a typical camera there are 512 by 512 pixels on the image plane (for comparison, there are 120 x 10^6 rods and 6 x 10^6 cones in the eye, arranged hexagonally). Let's call the projection on the image plane the image.

The brightness of each pixel in the image is proportional to the amount of light directed toward the camera by the surface patch of the object that projects to that pixel. (This of course depends on the reflectance properties of the surface patch, the position and distribution of the light sources in the environment, and the amount of light reflected from other objects in the scene onto the surface patch.) As it turns out, brightness of a patch depends on two kinds of reflections, one being specular (off the surface, as we saw before), and the other being diffuse (light that penetrates into the object, is absorbed, and then re-emitted). To correctly model light reflection, as well as reconstruct the scene, all these properties are necessary.

Let us suppose that we are dealing with a black and white camera with a 512 x 512 pixel image plane. Now we have an image, which is a collection of those pixels, each of which is an intensity between white and black. To find an object in that image (if there is one, we of course don't know a priori), the typical first step ("early vision") is to do edge detection, i.e., find all the edges. How do we recognize them? We define edges as curves in the image plane across which there is significant change in the brightness.

A simple approach would be to look for sharp brightness changes by differentiating the image and look for areas where the magnitude of the derivative is large. This almost works, but unfortunately it produces all sorts of spurious peaks, i.e., noise. Also, we cannot inherently distinguish changes in intensities due to shadows from those due to physical objects. But let's forget that for now and think about noise. How do we deal with noise?

We do smoothing, i.e., we apply a mathematical procedure called convolution, which finds and eliminates the isolated peaks. Convolution, in effect, applies a filter to the image. In fact, in order to find arbitrary edges in the image, we need to convolve the image with many filters with different orientations. Fortunately, the relatively complicated mathematics involved in edge detection has been well studied, and by now there are standard and preferred approaches to edge detection. 

Once we have edges, the next thing to do is try to find objects among all those edges. Segmentation is the process of dividing up or organizing the image into parts that correspond to continuous objects. But how do we know which lines correspond to which objects, and what makes an object? There are several cues we can use to detect objects:

  1. We can have stored models of line-drawings of objects (from many possible angles, and at many different possible scales!), and then compare those with all possible combinations of edges in the image. Notice that this is a very computationally intensive and expensive process. This general approach, which has been studied extensively, is called model-based vision.

  2. We can take advantage of motion. If we look at an image at two consecutive time-steps, and we move the camera in between, each continuous solid objects (which obeys physical laws) will move as one, i.e., its brightness properties will be conserved. This hives us a hint for finding objects, by subtracting two images from each other. But notice that this also depends on knowing well how we moved the camera relative to the scene (direction, distance), and that nothing was moving in the scene at the time. This general approach, which has also been studied extensively, is called motion vision.

  3. We can use stereo (i.e., binocular stereopsis, two eyes/cameras/points of view). Just like with motion vision above, but without having to actually move, we get two images, which we can subtract from each other, if we know what the disparity between them should be, i.e., if we know how the two cameras are organized/positioned relative to each other.

  4. We can use texture. Patches that have uniform texture are consistent, and have almost identical brightness, so we can assume they come from the same object. By extracting those we can get a hint about what parts may belong to the same object in the scene.

  5. We can also use shading and contours in a similar fashion. And there are many other methods, involving object shape and projective invariants, etc.

Note that all of the above strategies are employed in biological vision. It's hard to recognize unexpected objects or totally novel ones (because we don't have the models at all, or not at the ready). Movement helps catch our attention. Stereo, i.e., two eyes, is critical, and all carnivores use it (they have two eyes pointing in the same direction, unlike herbivores). The brain does an excellent job of quickly extracting the information we need for the scene.

Machine vision has the same task of doing real-time vision. But this is, as we have seen, a very difficult task. Often, an alternative to trying to do all of the steps above in order to do object recognition, it is possible to simplify the vision problem in various ways:

  1. Use color; look for specifically and uniquely colored objects, and recognize them that way (such as stop signs, for example)

  2. Use a small image plane; instead of a full 512 x 512 pixel array, we can reduce our view to much less, for example just a line (that's called a linear CCD). Of course there is much less information in the image, but if we are clever, and know what to expect, we can process what we see quickly and usefully.

  3. Use other, simpler and faster, sensors, and combine those with vision. For example, IR cameras isolate people by body-temperature. Grippers allow us to touch and move objects, after which we can be sure they exist.

  4. Use information about the environment; if you know you will be driving on the road which has white lines, look specifically for those lines at the right places in the image. This is how first and still fastest road and highway robotic driving is done.

Those and many other clever techniques have to be employed when we consider how important it is to "see" in real-time. Consider highway driving as an important and growing application of robotics and AI. Everything is moving so quickly, that the system must perceive and act in time to react protectively and safely, as well as intelligently.

Now that you know how complex vision is, you can see why it was not used on the first robots, and it is still not used for all applications, and definitely not on simple robots. A robot can be extremely useful without vision, but some tasks demand it. As always, it is critical to think about the proper match between the robot's sensors and the task.



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