Athough the ground signal may be much stronger than the target signal, the ground signal tends to remain the same, or change very slowly, as the loop is moved. The signal from the target, on the other hand, will rise quickly to a peak and then subside when the loop is swept over it. This opens up the possibility of using techniques to separate ground from target signals by looking at the rate of change of the receive signal rather than looking at the receive signal itself. Metal detector modes of operation which rely on this principle are called, not surprisingly, "Motion" modes. The most important example is a mode called "Motion Discrimination". If we wish to isolate the target signal well enough to determine the target's identity, the ground balance alone is not enough. We need to look at the target from a couple of different perspectives, sort of like the way distances can by measured by triangulation if you have more than one viewpoint. We can only be ground balanced from one particular "viewpoint"; the other will contain some combination of target and ground signal. Fortunately, we can use the motion technique to minimize the effect of the remaining ground signal. At the present time, all discriminating and V.D.I. metal detectors require loop motion to be effective. This turns out not to be much of a penalty in practice since you have to move the loop anyway in order to cover any ground.
As previously mentioned, most sands and soils contain some amount of iron. They may also have conductive properties due to the presence of salts dissolved in the ground water. The result is that a signal is received by the metal detector due to the ground itself which may be thousands of times stronger than the signal resulting from small metal objects buried at modest depths. Fortunately, the phase shift caused by the ground tends to remain fairly constant over a limited area. It is possible to arrange things inside the metal detector so that even if the strength of the ground signal changes dramatically--such as when the loop is raised and lowered, or when it passes over a mound or hole--the metal detector's output remains constant. Such a metal detector is said to be "ground balanced". Accurate ground balance makes it possible to "pinpoint" the location of the targets with a good deal of precision as well as to estimate the depth of the targets in the ground. If you choose to search in a non-discriminate, or "all-metal" mode, accurate ground balance is essential.
Metal detectors are fascination machines. Many of the people who use them are just as enthusiastic about extolling the virtues of their favorite metal detector as they are about setting off in search of buried treasure. Those of us who design and build these instruments for a living listen carefully when one of our customers talks about his or her experience in the field, because this is the primary means by which we determine how well we are doing our jobs, and what sort of things we need to do better. Sometimes though, communication is difficult. Almost as though we and our customers speak different languages. Which in a sense, we do. The purpose of this page is to try to narrow that communication gap a little. And, to resolve some of that "typical curiosity" metal detector operators have regarding what is going on inside their instruments.
Is it necessary to know how a metal detector works in order to use it effectively? Absolutely not. Will knowing how it works help someone to use it more effectively in the future? Quite possibly yes, but only with persistence and practice. The best metal detector available is still only as good as the person using it.
Some materials which conduct poorly or not at all can also cause a strong signal to be picked up by the receiver. We call these materials "ferromagnetic". Ferromagnetic substances tend to become magnetized when placed in a field like a paper clip which becomes temporarily magnetized when picked up with a bar magnet. The received signal shows little if any phase shift. Most soils and sands contain small grains of iron-bearing minerals which causes them to appear largely ferromagnetic to the metal detector. Cast iron (square nails) and steel objects (bottle caps) exhibit both electrical and ferromagnetic properties.
In order for an object to be detected the sample signals must be converted to a DC voltage. This task is performed by a circuit called an integrator. It averages the sampled pulses over time to provide a reference voltage. This DC reference voltage increases when metal nears the coil, then decreases as the object moves away. The DC voltage is amplified and controls the audio output circuitry which increases in pitch and/or volume to signal the presents of metal.
Some metal detectors use a microprocessor to monitor these three channels, determine the targets's likely identity, and assigning it a number based on the ratio of the "X" and "Y" readings, whenever the "G" reading exceeds a predetermined value. We can find this ratio with a resolution of better than 500 to 1 over the full range from ferrite to pure silver. Iron targets are orientation sensitive; therefore as the loop is moved above them, the calculated numerical value may change dramatically. A graphic display showing this numerical value on the horizontal axis and the strength of the signal on the vertical axis is extremely useful in distinguishing trash from more valuable objects. We call this display the "SignaGraph" (TM).
Although the modern high performance VLF metal detector has been several decades in the making, new advances will continue to be made. Better, smarter, easier-to-use machines will eventually be introduced. Today's very best metal detectors will not be easy to improve on but as long as there is treasure to be found, you can be sure that research is underway to take metal detecting technology to the next level.
Metal detectors can distinguish metal objects from each other based on the ratio of their inductance to their resistivity. This ratio gives rise to a predictable delay in the receive signal at a given frequency. An electronic circuit called a phase demodulator can measure this delay. In order to separate two signals, such as the ground component and the target component of the receive signal, as well as to determine the likely identity of the target, we use two such phase demodulators whose peak response is separated from each other by one fourth of the transmitter period, or ninety degrees. We call these two channels "X" and "Y". A third demodulated signal, we call "G", can be adjusted so that its response to any signal with a fixed phase relationship to the transmitter (such as the ground) can be reduced to zero regardless of the strength of the signal.
The time constant of the integrator determines how quickly the metal detector will respond to a metal object. A long time constant (in the range of seconds) has the advantage of reducing noise and making the metal detector easier to tune. Long time constants require a very slow sweep of the coil because a target might be missed if it passes quickly by the search coil. Short time constants (in the range of tenths of a second) respond more quickly to targets. This allows a quicker sweep of the loop however, it also allows more noise and instability.
A metal detector may provide a numeric readout, meter indication, or other display mechanism which shows the target's likely identity. We refer to this feature as a Visual Discrimination Indicator, or V.D.I. Metal Detectors with this capability have the advantage of allowing the operator to make informed decisions about which targets they choose to dig rather than relying solely on the instruments audio discriminator to do all the work. Most, if not all, V.D.I. metal detectors are also equipped with audio discriminators.
Ground balancing, while very critical on VLF metal detectors, is not necessary with PI circuits. Average ground mineralization will not store any appreciable amount of energy from the search coil and will not usually produce a signal. Such ground will not mask the signal from a buried object. On the contrary, ground mineralization will add slightly to the duration of the reflected pulse increasing the depth of detection. The term "automatic ground balance" is often applied to PI instruments because it will normally not react to mineralization and there are no external adjustments for any specific ground conditions.