A proximity sensor is a sensor able to detect the presence of nearby objects without any physical contact.
A proximity sensor often emits an electromagnetic field or a beam of electromagnetic radiation (infrared, for instance), and looks for changes in the field or return signal. The object being sensed is often referred to as the proximity sensor's target. Different proximity sensor targets demand different sensors. For example, a capacitive proximity sensor or photoelectric sensor might be suitable for a plastic target; an inductive proximity sensor always requires a metal target.
Proximity sensors can have a high reliability and long functional life because of the absence of mechanical parts and lack of physical contact between the sensor and the sensed object.
Proximity sensors are also used in machine vibration monitoring to measure the variation in distance between a shaft and its support bearing. This is common in large steam turbines, compressors, and motors that use sleeve-type bearings.
A proximity sensor adjusted to a very short range is often used as a touch switch.
Proximity sensors are commonly used on mobile devices. When the target is within nominal range, the device lock screen user interface will appear, thus emerging from what is known as sleep mode. Once the device has awoken from sleep mode, if the proximity sensor's target is still for an extended period of time, the sensor will then ignore it, and the device will eventually revert into sleep mode. For example, during a telephone call, proximity sensors play a role in detecting (and skipping) accidental touchscreen taps when mobiles are held to the ear.
Proximity sensors can be used to recognise air gestures and hover-manipulations. An array of proximity sensing elements can replace vision-camera or depth camera based solutions for hand gesture detection.