Metal detectors use electromagnetic induction to detect metal. Uses include de-mining (the detection of land mines), the detection of weapons such as knives and guns, especially at airports, geophysical prospecting, archaeology and treasure hunting. Metal detectors are also used to detect foreign bodies in food, and in the construction industry to detect steel reinforcing bars in concrete and pipes and wires buried in walls and floors.
In its simplest form, a metal detector consists of an oscillator producing an alternating current that passes through a coil producing an alternating magnetic field. If a piece of electrically conductive metal is close to the coil, eddy currents will be induced in the metal, and this produces an alternating magnetic field of its own. If another coil is used to measure the magnetic field (acting as a magnetometer), the change in the magnetic field due to the metallic object can be detected.
The modern development of the metal detector began in the 1930s. Gerhard Fisher had developed a system of radio direction-finding, which was to be used for accurate navigation. The system worked extremely well, but Fisher noticed that there were anomalies in areas where the terrain contained ore-bearing rocks. He reasoned that if a radio beam could be distorted by metal, then it should be possible to design a machine which would detect metal using a search coil resonating at a radio frequency. In 1937 he applied for, and was granted, the first patent for a metal detector. However, it was one Lieutenant Josef Stanislaw Kosacki, a Polish officer attached to a unit stationed in St Andrews, Fife, Scotland during the early years of World War II, that refined the design into a practical detector. They were heavy, ran on vacuum tubes, and needed separate battery packs. The design invented by Stanislaw was used extensively during the clearance of the German mine fields during the Second Battle of El Alamein when 500 units were shipped to Field Marshal Montgomery to clear the minefields of the retreating Germans, and later used during the Allied invasion of Sicily, the Allied invasion of Italy and the Invasion of Normandy. As it was a wartime research operation to create and refine the design of the detector, the knowledge that Stanislaw created the first practical metal detector was kept secret for over 50 years. After the war, there were plenty of surplus mine detectors on the market; they were bought up by relic hunters who used them for fun and profit. This helped to form metal detecting into a hobby.
Many manufacturers of these new devices brought their own ideas to the market. Whites Electronics of Oregon began in the 50's by building a machine called the Oremaster Geiger Counter. Another leader in detector technology was Charles Garrett, who pioneered the BFO (Beat Frequency Oscillator) machine. With the invention and development of the transistor in the 50's and 60's, metal detector manufacturers and designers made smaller lighter machines with improved circuitry, running on small battery packs. Companies sprang up all over the USA and Britain to supply the growing demand.
Technological changes were taking place at a rapid rate too, and very few of the smaller companies managed to stay in competition with the big outfits. GOLDAK, METROTECH, IGWT, TEC, and, quite recently, ARADO ceased production of hobby machines. Some devotees of metal detecting still treasure their Arado machines, which had a reputation for being difficult to set up, but were reputed to be the deepest-seeking hobby detectors ever made. The biggest technical change in detectors was the development of the induction-balance system, where two coils are set up in an electrical equilibrium to produce a 'null' or zero balance. Introducing metal to the vicinity of the coils caused them to unbalance, producing a change of tone in the machine's speaker. Scientists had long known that every metal has a specific response to stimulation by alternating current. Each metal produces a time lag or 'phase angle' in its induced current, in relation to the drive current. This meant that detectors could now be set up to ignore unwanted phase angles, and respond positively only to desired metals. But there was also a downside to the development of the 'discriminator' detectors. Introducing discrimination always had the effect of reducing the sensitivity of the machine, so it was less able to find deep objects. In addition, there was the fact that some desirable metals were quite near the area of unwanted metals, such as iron. Gold, particularly in alloy form, was quite close to tinfoil in the overall spectrum, so the discrimination control had to be used carefully. The price to be paid for setting up a detector to ignore iron and tinfoil was the possibility that, sooner or later, the user would scan over, and ignore, a valuable find - perhaps a diamond engagement ring on a beach.
Coil designers also tried out innovative designs. The original Induction Balance coil system consisted of two identical coils placed on top of one another. Compass Electronics produced a new design; the two coils were made in a D shape, and were mounted back-to-back to form a circle. This system was widely used in the 1970s, and both concentric and D type (or Widescan as they became known) had their fans. Another development was the invention of detectors which could cancel out the effect of mineralization in the ground. This gave greater depth, but was a non-discriminate mode. It worked best at lower frequencies than those used before, and frequencies of 3 to 20 kHz were found to produce the best results. Many detectors in the 1970s had a switch which enabled the user to switch between the discriminate mode and the non-discriminate mode. Later developments switched electronically between both modes. The development of the Induction Balance detector would ultimately result in the Motion detector, which constantly checked and balanced the background mineralization.
At the same time, developers were looking at using a completely different type of technology in metal detectors. This was the process known as Pulse Induction. Unlike the Beat Frequency Oscillator or the Induction Balance machines which both used a uniform alternating current at a low radio frequency, the pulse induction machine simply fired a high-voltage pulse of signal into the ground. In the absence of metal, the 'spike' decayed at a uniform rate, and the time it took to fall to zero volts could be accurately measured. However, if metal was present when the machine fired, a small current would flow in the metal, and the time for the voltage to drop to zero would be increased. These time differences were minute, but the improvement in electronics made it possible to measure them accurately and identify the presence of metal at a reasonable distance. These new machines had one major advantage: they were completely impervious to the effects of mineralization, and rings and other jewellery could now be located even under highly-mineralized 'black sand'. They had one major disadvantage too: there was no way to incorporate discrimination into a Pulse induction detector. At least, that was the perceived wisdom of scientists and engineers until Eric Foster, who had run Location Technology in Ireland for many years, started a new company in Britain and produced the Goldscan, the first Pulse Induction detector which had the apparent ability to differentiate between metals. This was a new type of 'junk eliminator' circuit, which relied on the size of the target as well as its metallic response to give a control that would show positive for a gold ring and negative for a copper coin. Its ability to differentiate between non-ferrous metals was not an exact science, but gave unparalleled depth on mineralized soil or sand. Pulse Induction detectors are now widely used in the construction industry; the Whites PI-150 is an industrial machine which can detect large objects to 10 feet, using a 12 or 15 inch coil.
Modern top models are fully computerized, using microchip technology to allow the user to set sensitivity, discrimination, track speed, threshold volume, notch filters, etc., and hold these parameters in memory for future use. Compared to just a decade ago, detectors are lighter, deeper-seeking, use less battery power, and discriminate better.
New genres of metal detector have made their appearance. BB (Beat Balance) and CCO (Coil Coupled Operation) were unveiled by the electronics press in 2004. Both were invented by electronics writer and designer Thomas Scarborough and combine unprecedented simplicity with good sensitivity.
In England and Wales metal detecting is legal provided permission is granted by the landowner, and the area is not a Scheduled Ancient Monument or covered by elements of the Countryside Stewardship Scheme. Voluntary reporting of finds to the Portable Antiquities Scheme or the UK Detector Finds Database is encouraged. These schemes have their critics, however, including some archaeologists and metal detectorists. The situation in Scotland is very different. Under the Scots law principle of bona vacantia , the Crown has claim over any object of any material where the original owner cannot be traced. There is also no 300 year limit to Scottish finds. Any artifact found, whether by metal detector survey or from an archaeological excavation, must be reported to the Crown through the Treasure Trove Advisory Panel at the National Museums of Scotland. The Panel then determines what will happen to the artifacts. Reporting is not voluntary, and failure to report the discovery of historic artifacts is a criminal offense in Scotland.
Archeology is beginning to recognize the contribution responsible metal detecting provides in adding to the knowledge of our past. One example is utilizing the skilled use of the metal detector to examine wide areas such as battlefield sites where surface scatters of metal objects may be all that survives. This has recently been demonstrated during archaeological work conducted at Antietam National Battlefield in the United States.
Many people use consumer metal detectors to look for coins on the beach. Most metal detectors are good to detect metal only within a foot or so below the ground. The detection depth depends on the type of metal detector, type of metal in the buried object, size of buried object, type of metals in the ground, and other objects in the ground.
There are five major types of hobbyist activities involving metal detectors:
The first industrial metal detectors were developed in the 1960s and were used extensively for mining and other industrial applications. A series of aircraft hijackings led the Finnish company Outokumpu to adapt mining metal detectors, still housed in a large cylindrical pipe, to the purpose of screening airline passengers as they walked through. The development of these systems continued in a spin off company and systems branded as Metor Metal Detectors evolved in the form of the rectangular gantry now standard in airports. In common with the developments in other uses of metal detectors both alternating current and pulse systems are used, and the design of the coils and the electronics has moved forward to improve the discrimination of these systems. In 1995 systems such as the Metor 200 appeared with the ability to indicate the approximate height of the metal object above the ground, enabling security personnel to more rapidly locate the source of the signal. Smaller hand held metal detectors are also used to locate a metal object on a person more precisely.
Contamination of food by metal shards from broken processing machinery during manufacture is a major safety issue in the food industry. Metal detectors for this purpose are widely used and integrated in the production line.