Types of Position Sensors

Position sensors are essential elements in the control of actuators. The position of both linear and rotary actuators is needed in robotic type mechanisms. There are three principle types.

· Resistive
· Optical
· Inductive

Resistive type


A potentiometer is a variable electrical resistance. A length of resistance material has a voltage applied over its ends. A slider moves along it (either linear or rotary) and picks off the voltage at its position or angle. The tracks may be made from carbon , resistance wire or piezo resistive material. The latter is the best because it gives a good analogue output. The wire wound type produces small step changes in the output depending on how fine the wire is and how closely it is coiled on the track.

Optical type


Optical types are mainly used for producing digital outputs. A common example is found on machine tools where they measure the position of the work table and display it in digits on the gauge head. Digital micrometers and verniers also use this idea. The basic principle is as follows. Light is emitted through a transparent strip or disc onto a photo electric cell. Often reflected light is used as shown. The strip or disc has very fine lines engraved on it which interrupt the beam. The number of interruptions are counted electronically and this represents the position or angle. This is very much over simplified and you should refer to more advanced text to find out how very accurate measurements are obtained and also the direction of movement.

Inductive type


The most common of these is the Linear Variable Differential transformer or LVDT. The transformer is made with one primary coil and two secondary coils, one placed above and the other below the primary. The coils are formed into a long narrow hollow tube. A magnetic core slides in the tube and is attached to the mechanism being monitored with a non magnetic stem (e.g. brass). A constant alternating voltage is applied to the primary coil. This induces a voltage in both secondary coils. When the core is exactly in the middle, equal voltages are induced and when connected as shown, they cancel each other out. When the core moves, the voltage in one secondary coil grows but reduces in the other. The result is an output voltage which represents the position of the core and hence the mechanism to which it is attached. The output voltage is usually converted into D.C. With suitable electronic equipment for phase detection, it is possible to detect which direction the core moves and to switch the DC voltage from plus to minus as the core passes the centre position. These can be very accurate and are widely used for gauging the dimensions of machined components.