Robotic sensors: The interface between robots and the world

Robot Tech

Robot sensor

Robotic sensors: The interface between robots and the world

Catherine Bernier
Content Manager
Content for Cobot

Learn how manufacturers are transforming basic machines into powerful, dynamic systems using the power of sensors.

In the realm of robotic manufacturing, sensors play a pivotal role, serving as the indispensable interface between machines and their environment. Much like the critical feedback systems in the human body, sensors provide robots with essential data about their surroundings, enabling them to operate with remarkable precision and efficiency. 

As the backbone of modern automation, understanding the intricacies of these sensors is paramount. This article will delve into the fundamental aspects of robotic sensors: their classifications, purposes, advantages, challenges, and associated costs.

What are robot sensors? 

A robot sensor is a device that measures some attribute of its environment and converts it into a signal that can be read or interpreted by a robotic system. This environmental attribute could be anything from distance, to light intensity, to temperature, or even to chemical composition. The data gleaned from these measurements is what allows robots to "perceive" their surroundings, much like how our human senses feed information to our brains.

In robotic manufacturing, these sensors are paramount because they enable machines to interact safely and effectively with their environment and with other machines. Without them, a robot would be a mere static device, lacking the dynamic adaptability that's synonymous with modern automated systems.

There are two primary categories of sensors based on their functionality:

  1. Proprioceptive Sensors: These are akin to our internal senses. They provide information about the robot's own state. Examples include accelerometers (which measure acceleration) and gyroscopes (which measure orientation).
  2. Exteroceptive Sensors: These provide information about the robot's surroundings. Examples include cameras (which capture visual data), ultrasonic sensors (which measure distance using sound waves), and infrared sensors (which detect heat).

What are the applications of robot sensors?

Lidar sensor


In essence, sensors are the vital conduits that bridge the gap between the machine and the physical world in which they operate. They ensure that robots can adjust to changes, make decisions based on real-time data, and execute tasks with unparalleled precision.

Robot sensors serve a myriad of functions in the manufacturing landscape, transforming simple machines into dynamic systems. Here's a closer look at the key roles sensors play in this domain.

Positioning and navigation

Positioning and navigation can be a crucial function for a machine moving in space. In large manufacturing facilities, mobile robots often need to move from one location to another to transport materials or tools. Sensors like LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) and ultrasonic rangefinders help these robots navigate and avoid obstacles, ensuring smooth operations.

Quality control

Cameras and vision systems allow robots to inspect products on the assembly line for defects. They can identify issues like misalignments, color discrepancies, or imperfections, ensuring that only top-quality products make it through the production line.


Safety sensors, such as infrared or capacitive sensors, can detect the presence of humans or other objects in close proximity. If a worker inadvertently enters a robot's operating zone, these sensors can trigger the robot to halt, preventing accidents.

Assembly and handling

In tasks that require the fitting of parts, tactile sensors allow robots to adjust the force and angle of approach. This ensures that fragile parts aren't damaged and that components fit together perfectly.

Environment monitoring

Environmental sensors measure factors like temperature, humidity, or even chemical compositions. This is crucial for manufacturing processes that are sensitive to environmental conditions, such as semiconductor fabrication.

Feedback and calibration

Just as humans rely on feedback to learn and improve, robots use feedback from sensors to refine their operations. For instance, a robot might adjust its speed or force based on the data it receives, ensuring optimal performance.

Sensors empower robots to perform their tasks with an elevated level of precision, adaptability, and safety. They transform robots from simple programmable entities to intelligent systems capable of responding to the ever-changing dynamics of a manufacturing environment.

What types of robot sensors exist?

Vision sensor


As manufacturing processes become more intricate and demands for precision escalate, a diverse range of sensors has been developed to meet these needs. Here, we'll delve into some of the most common types of sensors used in robotic manufacturing and provide examples for each. 

Vision sensors (cameras)

Vision sensors, commonly known as cameras, capture visual data from their surroundings, turning images into electronic signals that robots can interpret. In automobile manufacturing, high-resolution cameras inspect the paint quality of cars, detecting even minute imperfections to ensure each vehicle meets the company's stringent standards.

Proximity sensors

Proximity sensors detect the presence or absence of objects nearby without physical contact. Ultrasonic sensors, a type of proximity sensor, use sound waves to gauge the distance to an object. In warehousing, robots equipped with ultrasonic sensors navigate tight aisles, ensuring they don’t collide with shelves or products.

Force and tactile sensors

Force and tactile sensors measure pressure, force, or vibrations. They allow robots to determine how hard they're gripping or pressing against an object. When assembling delicate electronics, robots use these sensors to apply just the right amount of pressure, making certain that components aren't damaged during the process.

Temperature sensors

Temperature sensors measure the heat level of objects or their environment. In the metal forging industry, robots with these sensors monitor the heat of metals. This information helps determine if metals are ready for molding or if they need additional cooling time.

LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging)

LIDAR is a remote sensing method that uses light in the form of a pulsed laser to measure distances. In large-scale facilities, robots equipped with LIDAR create detailed 3D maps of their environment. This capability allows them to plan efficient routes and sidestep unexpected obstacles.

Gyroscopes and accelerometers

Gyroscopes measure orientation based on the principles of angular momentum, while accelerometers measure sudden acceleration or deceleration. In drones, these sensors stabilize the drone's flight, ensuring it remains level and responds aptly to external forces.

Chemical and gas sensors

Chemical and gas sensors detect specific molecules in their environment, which can be crucial in industries where purity and composition are paramount. In especially hazardous manufacturing facilities or recovery operations, robots equipped with these sensors can verify the safety of a defined zone before humans enter.

Laser distance sensors

Laser distance sensors measure the distance between the sensor and an object by using a laser. In precision manufacturing, these sensors are invaluable for ensuring that the robot approaches the part as precisely as possible.

What are the benefits and challenges?

3d scanner


Robot sensors bring a plethora of advantages to the manufacturing world. Chief among them is the enhancement in precision and consistency. With sensors, robots can achieve a level of accuracy that is challenging for human workers to maintain over extended periods. 

Furthermore, robots equipped with sensors can operate in environments that may be hazardous to humans, such as places with toxic chemicals or extreme temperatures. This not only ensures worker safety but can also lead to more efficient production cycles since robots can work continuously without breaks. 

Lastly, the real-time feedback provided by sensors allows for on-the-spot adjustments, reducing errors and waste in the manufacturing process.


However, the integration of sensors into robotic systems isn't without its challenges. Firstly, the data from more advanced sensors need to be accurately interpreted, which requires sophisticated algorithms and computing power. For example, vision systems often require dedicated computing systems just to interpret the vast quantity of optical data. Incorrect interpretations can lead to operational errors. 

Furthermore, sensors can be sensitive to environmental factors; for instance, a vision sensor might struggle in low light conditions. Proximity sensors can be affected by high-temperature environments. Manufacturers should ensure they understand the operating range of their instrumentation.

Maintenance is another consideration; sensors need regular calibration and checking to ensure they function optimally. Some sensors may not function correctly when they accumulate dust or debris.

What’s the cost?

The cost of robotic sensors varies widely based on their complexity, precision, and application. Simple sensors, like basic proximity sensors, can be relatively inexpensive, often costing as low as $10 or less on the low end. 

On the other hand, advanced vision systems or LIDAR setups can run into the tens of thousands of dollars, especially at the high-end. There is typically a broad range of cost within individual types of sensors. Manufacturers will typically pay more on the basis of:

  • Precision, resolution, or accuracy
  • Range
  • Resistance to extreme conditions (moisture, heat, etc.)
  • Industry certifications

Furthermore, the total cost isn't just limited to the initial purchase. Maintenance, software updates, and occasional calibrations can add to the lifetime cost of the sensor. It's also crucial to consider the return on investment. If a better sensor makes production faster, of a higher quality, or more efficient, that should be considered in the ROI calculation. 

While the upfront costs might be high, sensors are necessary for the proper functionality of most robotic systems. The capabilities of a good sensor often justifies the investment. Ultimately, sensors are the linchpin that grants robots their functionality and adaptability, making them indispensable in the modern manufacturing landscape.

What’s next?

You may be ready to take the next step toward improving your arsenal of sensors, but where do you start?

The HowToRobot platform connects buyers of automation with a variety of suppliers in a streamlined, easy-to-use environment. 

Post your project on HowToRobot today for free, and begin receiving offers from vetted, relevant, and eager automation vendors from our supplier network.