Let's Make Robots!

Homemade Laser Rangefinder

My laser range finder got a lot of interest so I thought I'd try to explain it in more detail.


It's not finished yet as it still needs to be mounted on it's stepper motor with a home position switch.

The sensor side has been tested on an oscilliscope. When I moved my hand in front of it, the pulse width varied to match.  Below is a diagram showing how the sensor works.

 On the underside of the cpu fan is a small piece of a blank cd glued to the centre of the fan.  This spinning mirror directs the laser (5mW red) around the room. The small black tube at the upper right is a phototransistor with a piece of heatshrink on it so it only detects light from in front of it.  This signal is amplified by a couple of transistors and mixed with the tacho output from the fan to give me a pulse with a width that represents the angle of the mirror when the phototransistor was hit by the beam.  The chip at the top is a "D" type flip flop that is used to mix the tacho signal and the pulse from the amplifier. 


Robot_Laser_Ranger_Explanation.jpgAs you can see, the closer the object, the sharper the angle of the laser. This isn't how the commercial units work, I couldn't find anything on how they worked. because of the way this works the output is logarithmic.

This means that close up, the resolution might be a couple of mm's but further away it will be in cm's.

 Resolution can be improved by increasing the distance between the spinning mirror and the phototransistor but may reduce the overall range.  I'm not certain why the range is so limited, I was expecting to pick up objects up to 4 or 5 meters away (about 15 feet).  I noticed that commercial units have a fairly big lens at the front so I suspect it needs glasses (it's short sighted like it's creator ha ha).

Despite it's range limitations (at the moment) it has the advantage of being able to detect chair / table legs more accurately.  These have always been the nemisis of robots using sonar and infra red.

For those using picaxe basic this is easy to use with the pulsin command doing all the hard work. Higher proccesor clock speeds will also increase resolution.

At the moment I'm using a BPV11 phototransistor from Dick Smith Electronics as the beam detector. It's very sensitive to red and infrared light. It just has a piece of black heatshrink on it at the moment so that it can only dectect light directly in front but later I will mount it in a seperate case if I can find a suitable lens to increase it's range.







For anyone interested in making they're own laser rangefinder I've stripped down the original schematic to make it easier to understand and to adapt to your own robot. You can use any processor, laser and spinning mirror you want. See the attachment for a full sized schematic.


The power supply with +3V for a laser is optional, you may already have a suitable supply and/or a laser that needs a different voltage.

The Amplifier with sensor is the really important bit, I've simplified it a bit from the original.  If you can't get the exact components, don't panic!  The transistors are just general purpose NPN and PNP transistors with a hfe of about 400. This amplifier just boost the pulse from the sensor into a sharp on/off pulse, nothing fancy. I did try a third stage originally but found I was getting too much noise. If you end up using a different phototransistor than the BPV11 you may have to change the 10K resistor in series with it.

The Mixer, I've shown two different variations of the mixer because the tacho on my fan gave out 2 pulses per revolution.  The flip-flop in option (a) divides this down to 1 pulse per revolution with the output of the amplifier cutting the pulse short in response to detection of the beam. Option (b) is for spinning mirrors of your own design that would probably only give one pulse, from positive to ground and back to positive again.

 The Output to the processor is a pulse of variable width, picaxe basic users can just use the pulsin command to do the hard work.

You'll notice that I have a 12V cpu fan running on 5V, this isn't just to make power supply issues easier, it's to slow the fan down.  The slower your mirror spins, the wider the pulse, the more resolution you get.  Between 20 and 60 revolutions a second (120-360rpm) is ideal as long as the mirror spins at a constant speed.  Some motors may get a bit jerky at slow speeds in which case you should use a gearbox for low rpm.

If you are making your own spinning mirror then make sure your mirror is a high grade, toy mirrors are crap, the easiest solution is to cut out a piece of a blank CD/DVD about 10mm square.  You can go bigger but the heavier it gets, the more it will vibrate if it's out of balance (and another reason that slow speed is good speed).

I used a stepper motor to rotate my whole assembly around for scanning because it was cheap and didn't require a constant signal from the processor to maintain position however a servo works just as well or you might just scan forward and rotate the robot on the spot (easy to do with skid steer).

Hope this helps :)


I did a few experiments which I briefly covered in boozebot's update.  This was the first time I was using a picaxe and not just the oscilloscope to measure the mixers output. I've been trying to improve the range of the laser rangefinder.



The oscilloscope is measuring the output of the amplifier. I was using debug in the picaxe basic editor to monitor the distance of my hand but the white sceen in the background was messing with the camera.

As you can see, I'm extreemly jealous of Rik's new setup. The rangefinder with it's new monacle is balanced precariously on the front of the keyboard tray while the keyboard is hanging on for dear life at the back!

The picture that you can't make out is Leela from futurama drawn Tomb Raider style!








Anyway, enough of my jealousy and perverted taste, back to the laser rangefinder!


As you can see, I've got a 60mm magnifying glass taped to the front of a cardboard tube and mounted the phototransistor at the focal point. This does work better but I have to work on aligning all the optical components. I need to get the phototransistor / lens in line with the laser. At the moment moving the PCB up and down or tweaking the laser up and down affects the distance it can detect. I did get it to pick up a white object at about 2 meters but with some adjustments to both the optical alignment and the amplifier I think I can increase the range to a useful 3 or 4 meters.

The optical setup I've got here is probably bigger than I need but it was what I had laying about.

During this test (aside from things falling off) I noticed that turning off the lights reduced the range.  With the oscilloscope on the first stage of the amplifier the signal from the phototransistor dropped off dramatically.  I realised this was because with the base pin cut off of the phototransistor the only energy turning on the transistor was the photons hitting it. I tried biasing another phototransistor that didn't have thebase lead cut off but rather than boosting the signal it swamped it. Even with resistors in the megaohm range it did more harm than good plus all this high impedance circuitry connected to the base was picking up electrical interferance.

The upshot of all this sofar is that I'm going to mount some high intensity red leds inside the cardboard tube where they won't block the light coming in but will ensure a minimum amount of light hits the phototransistor.  The reason for the red LED's is that the phototransistor is only sensitive to red and infrared light. By adjusting the intensity of these LED's I should be able to achieve optimum sensitivity in any light condition and my robot will have a glowing red eye just like the terminator. I suppose the scanning laser is the other eye (like the borg). Hmmm will Boozebot (a) get me a beer, (b) steal my clothes and bike or (c) assimilate me.  Only time will tell.




Easypeesy_Laser_Rangefinder_Schematic.jpg220.48 KB

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Hey OddBot,

I know it's been a while since you've worked on this project, but I recently started working on a similar project and could use your help.

Could you please explain how the amplifier part of your circuit works, and what kind of voltage change is the phototransistor generating when the laser is turned on? Also, what is the range of the entire system without the lens in a fully lit room vs poor lighting conditions (if you remember by any chance).

I've been using a photoresistor instead of a phototransistor, and my current circuit, without amplification, only works up to around 20cm range and any obstacle placed further doesn't change the voltage output enough :(

Love your work!

Hey Oddbot

Thanks for the schematics and Idea's on both the Homemade Laser Rangefinder and the IR rangefinder you posted. Taking a break from building the IR ragefinder now to ask you about the Laser rangefinder.

Firstly how much did the Laser rangefinder cost to make? reason I am asking is I have been trying to track down a red laser diode 635nm 5mW like the one you used. Cheapest one I could find was $18, but I can buy a red laser pionter at any Chines store in South Africa for about $2. So basicly is the $18 for a laser diode inline with the price range I should be expecting? Or could I dismantle a $2 laser pionter and jsut use its laser diode? And if you dont mind could you tell me where you bought your laser diode form?



I only used a cheap laser pointer. I soldered a NPN transistor across the push button so it can be turned on electronically. My original design here was trying to use a red LED as the photodiode. It will work much better if you can use a phototransistor sensitive to the laser light.

If I ever get time I want to try to make it again but using a sharp IR rangefinder as the receiver. If you replace the IR receivers LED with a suitable laser diode then it should work the same but with better precision.

Wow - this doesn't look too hard! Not quite the way I understand commercial laser scanners work, but hey this looks pretty easy to do on the hobbyist level.

BTW have you seen this article? http://www.hizook.com/blog/2009/12/20/ultra-low-cost-laser-rangefinders-actualized-neato-robotics ...Looks to be pretty similar. Perhaps low-cost laser ranging for us hobbyist types is coming soon!


The unit mentioned in the artical above is basically a sharp IR range finder except it uses a laser instead of a IR LED and is mounted on a motor.

After pulling apart a sharp IR rangefinder I think it is possible to use a laser pointer with it's cmos sensor but I never had time to try it. Optical alignment will be the most difficult part.

I stumbled upon this post while looking for ideas on how to build a laser range finder to interface with an Arduino. I love your system. It's a shame it can only track a very narrow band in front of the bot. A simple solution to this would be to add multiple phototransistors next to each other in the same plane as the laser beam projects. You would probably need a microcontroller to keep track of each of the inputs which would add cost and complexity but you could use it for mapping and navigating.

If I ended up doing this with my Arduino, I would put the motor's tacho into an interrupt enabled pin, wire 8 phototransistors into one of the digital ports and I'd probably wire the phototransistors together using diodes into the other interrupt pin. In the tacho interrupt, set a variable to the current time. In the sensor interrupt, read the port with the phototransistors and check which phototransistor triggered the interrupt, set its distance to the difference between now and the last tacho reading. You could pump this all out over a serial connection or use it all internally.

This is a really cool project!  There was a team at the Trinity Home Fire Fighting contest 2003 I think, that used a green laser and a linear array.  The result was very small, and rotated around on the top of the bot fairly quickly, taking measurements as it spun.  I believe it works just like the GP2D12 do: http://www.acroname.com/robotics/info/articles/sharp/sharp.html   It was incredibly impressive, especially for its size.  I had planned on trying to build one,  but had forgot about it until now. 

I found the teams website which has some info on it: http://www.eng.buffalo.edu/ubr/ff03laser.php

Green lasers are probably a bad idea for use in hobbies, though.  They're frickin powerful ... probably not a good thing to put in the hands of a homemade robot.  I borrowed one from my prof when I was taking astronomy.  They're awesome because you can point them into the sky at night and the visible beam seems to reach all the way to space, making it easy to point out astronomical objects.  They're so powerful, though, that the beam actually produces heat, and is powerful enough to pop a balloon.  It's generally not a good idea to shine red laser pointers into people's eyes, but green lasers can freaking blind you.
Not trying to discount the fact that the link to the university's design is a great reference ... it is.  Just wanted to point out that green lasers probably aren't the safest option for household use. 

I don't understand the perceived relationship between the wavelength of the laser and its power output.

Hmm?  I don't think there is one.  You can have lots of light or a little bit of light no matter what spectrum it's in.