Context. With the arrival of the next generation of ground-based imaging interferometers combining from 4 to possibly 6 telescopes simultaneously, there is also a strong need for a new generation of fringe trackers able to cophase such arrays. These instruments have to be very sensitive and to provide robust operations in quickly varying observational conditions. Aims. We aim at defining the optimal characteristics of fringe sensor concepts operating with 4 or 6 telescopes. The current detector limitations impose us to consider solutions based on co-axial pairwise combination schemes. Methods. We independently study several aspects of the fringe sensing process: 1) how to measure the phase and the group delay, and 2) how to combine the telescopes in order to ensure a precise and robust fringe tracking in real conditions. Thanks to analytical developments and numerical simulations, we define the optimal fringe-sensor concepts and compute the expected performance of the 4-telescope one with our dedicated end-to-end simulation tool sim2GFT. Results. We first show that measuring the phase and the group delay by obtaining the data in several steps (i.e. by temporally modulating the optical path difference) is extremely sensitive to atmospheric turbulence and therefore conclude that it is better to obtain the fringe position with a set of data obtained simultaneously. Subsequently, we show that among all co-axial pairwise schemes, moderately redundant concepts increase the sensitivity as well as the robustness in various atmospheric or observing conditions. Merging all these results, end-to-end simulations show that our 4-telescope fringe sensor concept is able to track fringes at least 90% of the time up to limiting magnitudes of 7.5 and 9.5 for the 1.8- and 8.2-meter VLTI telescopes respectively.Comment: 18 pages, 11 figures. Accepted in Astronomy and Astrophysic
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