What is an Infrared Sensor?

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A USB dongle with an infrared sensor.
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  • Written By: Adam Hill
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 12 November 2015
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An infrared sensor is an electronic device that emits and/or detects infrared radiation in order to sense some aspect of its surroundings. Infrared sensors can measure the heat of an object, as well as detect motion. Many of these types of sensors only measure infrared radiation, rather than emitting it, and thus are known as passive infrared (PIR) sensors.

All objects emit some form of thermal radiation, usually in the infrared spectrum. This radiation is invisible to our eyes, but can be detected by an infrared sensor that accepts and interprets it. In a typical infrared sensor like a motion detector, radiation enters the front and reaches the sensor itself at the center of the device. This part may be composed of more than one individual sensor, each of them being made from pyroelectric materials, whether natural or artificial. These are materials that generate an electrical voltage when heated or cooled.

These pyroelectric materials are integrated into a small circuit board. They are wired in such a way so that when the sensor detects an increase in the heat of a small part of its field of view, it will trigger the motion detector's alarm. It is very common for an infrared sensor to be integrated into motion detectors like those used as part of a residential or commercial security system.


Most motion detectors are fitted with a special type of lens, called a Fresnel lens, on the sensor face. A set of these lenses on a motion detector can focus light from many directions, giving the sensor a view of the whole area. Instead of Fresnel lenses, some motion detectors are fitted with small parabolic mirrors which serve the same purpose.

An infrared sensor can be thought of as a camera that briefly remembers how an area's infrared radiation appears. A sudden change in one area of the field of view, especially one that moves, will change the way electricity goes from the pyroelectric materials through the rest of the circuit. This will trigger the motion detector to activate an alarm. If the whole field of view changes temperature, this will not trigger the device. This makes it so that sudden flashes of light and natural changes in temperature do not activate the sensor and cause false alarms.

Infrared motion detectors used in residential security systems are also desensitized somewhat, with the goal of preventing false alarms. Typically, a motion detector like these will not register movement by any object weighing less than 40 pounds (18 kg). With this modification, household pets will be able to move freely around the house without their owners needing to worry about a false alarm. For households with large pets, sensors with an 80-pound (36 kg) allowance are also made.


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Post 6

Of what use is such a sensor?

Post 4

I want to detect human presence whether static or in motion. Can you suggest some technology?-- Kamran R.

Post 3

Can these be used in greenhouses?

Post 2

@flowerchild--The infrared imaging technology that picks up heat being radiated is the same. It has several uses. When looking at say, SARS in the airports a few years ago, it is looking for heat patterns being radiated off the human body. This was a scary time to be flying. We were in the airport and had to be scanned before our flight.

When it is being used as a motion detector sensor, like in our garage doors,the motion detecting technology is additional.

Post 1

Is this infrared technology the same as that used in airports or to test buildings?

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