Hackaday Dictionary: Servo Motors

How do you make things move? You add in a motor that converts electrical energy into motion. That’s a simple idea, but how do you know where the motor is? That’s where the servo motor comes in. By adding a sensor and a controller to the mechanism, these motors can figure out how far they have rotated and maintain that setting without any need for external control.

A disassembled servo motor showing the controller, motor, rotary encoder and gears. By oomlout - SERV-05-ST_TEARDOWN_03, CC BY-SA 2.0
A disassembled servo motor showing the controller, motor, rotary encoder and gears. By oomlout, CC BY-SA 2.0

What is a Servo Motor?

These neat devices can be large or small, but they all share the same basic characteristics: a motor connected to a gearing mechanism and an encoder that detects the movement and speed of the motor. This combination means that the controlling device doesn’t need to know anything about the motor itself: the controller on the servo motor handles the process of feeding the appropriate power to the motor until it reaches the requested position. This makes it much easier to build things with servomotors, as the designer has already done all the hard work for you.

The first place that most people encounter a servo motor is in the small hobby servos that are used in remote control vehicles. Manufactured by companies like Hitec and Futaba, these drive a gear or arm that transfers the rotation of the motor to perform tasks like turning a wheel to steer a car, moving a control surface on an RC plane, or any task that requires a small range of motion at high precision. The gearing in the servomotor offers more torque than connecting the shaft directly to the motor. Most hobby servos of this type are restricted to a certain range of motion (usually 180 degrees) because the position encoder is a simple potentiometer connected to the output shaft.

A selection of different sized servo motors. By Osamu Iwasaki
A selection of different sized servo motors. By Osamu Iwasaki

Servomotors usually have three connection wires: a power line, a ground line and a signal line. The signal line is fed a pulse width modulation (PWM) signal that determines the angle that the servomotor moves to. As the name suggests, the length of the pulse (or the width, if you look at it on an oscilloscope) is the thing that controls the angle that the servo moves to: a short pulse (1 millisecond) sets it to the zero angle, while a long pulse of 2 milliseconds sets it to the maximum angle. A pulse length between these two limits signals the servomotor to move to the corresponding angle: 1.5 ms would set it to 90 degrees.

It is important to note that servomotors and stepper motors are not the same thing. Both are used for positioning, but steppers usually run without feedback. Instead, steppers turn (as the name suggest) in discrete steps. To figure out where a stepper motor is requires a limit switch, then driving the stepper until this is triggered. Then if you keep count out the number of steps that it’s traveled, you know where it is. That’s why devices like inkjet or 3D printers will move to their limits when they start up, so the controller can detect the far limit of the mechanism being driven, and calculate the current position from that.

How Do You Use A Servomotor?

Because the designers of servomotors have done most of the hard work for you, servomotors are very easy to use. To drive them, you just need to feed them power (usually 5V) and feed the PWM signal to the servomotor. You can drive them directly from an Arduino or similar microcontroller using a library that converts an angle into a PWM signal on one of the output pins.

Each servomotor requires a dedicated output pin if they are being driven this way, though, so if you are driving a lot of servomotors, a dedicated controller makes more sense. Devices such as the Adafruit Servo Shield and the Pololu Maestro allow you to control multiple servos from a single output pin on the microcontroller: the microcontroller sends a signal to the device addressing each servo in turn, and the device converts this into the PWM signals for each. If you need to drive a lot of servos, the SD84 can control up to 84 servos at once from a single USB port.

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Hack a Day’s Dictionary of Questionable Utility™

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