Metal detectors use electromagnetic fields to detect the presence of metallic objects. They exist in a variety of walk-through, hand-held, and vehicle-mounted models and are used to search personnel for hidden metallic objects at entrances to airports, public schools, courthouses, and other guarded spaces; to hunt for landmines, archaeological artifacts, and miscellaneous valuables; and for the detection of hidden or unwanted metallic objects in industry and construction. Metal detectors detect metallic objects, but do not image them. An x-ray baggage scanner, for example, is not classed as a metal detector because it images metallic objects rather than merely detecting their presence.
Metal detectors use electromagnetism in two fundamentally different ways, active and passive. Active detection methods illuminate some detection space—the opening of a walk-through portal, for example, or the space directly in front of a hand-held unit—with a time-varying electromagnetic field. Energy reflected from or passing through the detection space is affected by the presence of conductive material in that space; the detector detects metal by measuring these effects. Passive detection methods do not illuminate the detection space, but take advantage of the fact that every shielded detection space is already permeated by the Earth's natural magnetic field.
Walk-through metal detectors - Walk-through or portal detectors are common in airports, public buildings, and military installations. Their portals are bracketed with two large coils or loop-type antennae, one a source and the other a detector. Electromagnetic waves (in this case, low-frequency radio waves) are emitted by the source coil into the detection space. When the electromagnetic field of the transmitted wave impinges on a conducting object, it induces transient currents on the surface of the object; these currents, in turn, radiate electromagnetic waves. These secondary waves are sensed by the detector coil.
Hand-carried metal detectors - Metal detectors small enough to be hand-held are often used at security checkpoints to localize metal objects whose presence has been detected by a walk-through system. Some units are designed to be carried by a pedestrian scanning for metal objects in the ground (e.g., nails, loose change, landmines). All such devices operate on variations of the same physical principle as the walk-through metal detector, that is, they emit time-varying electromagnetic fields and listen for waves coming back from conducting objects. Some ground-search models further analyze the returned fields to distinguish various common metals from each other. Hand-carried metal detectors have long been used to search for landmines; however, modern landmines are often made largely of plastic to avoid this cheap and obvious counter-measure. New technologies, especially neutron activation analysis and ground-penetrating radar, are being developed to search for nonmetallic landmines.