I was absolutely struck by a hack this week — [Adam Bäckström]’s amazing robot arm built with modified hobby servos. Basically, he’s taken apart and re-built some affordable off-the-shelf servo motors, and like the 6-Million-Dollar Man, he’s rebuilt them better, stronger, faster. OK, and smoother. We have the technology.
The results are undeniably fantastic, and enable the experienced hacker to get champagne robot motion control on a grape-juice budget by employing some heavy control theory, and redundant sensors to overcome geartrain backlash, which is the devil of cheap servos. But this didn’t come out of nowhere. In his writeup, [Adam] starts off with “You could say this project started when I ordered six endless servos in middle school, more than 15 years ago.” And it shows.
Go check out this video of his first version of the modified servos, from a six-axis arm he built in 2009(!). He’s built in analog position sensors in the motors, which lets him control the speed and makes it work better than any other hobby servo arm you’ve ever seen, but there’s still visible backlash in the gears. A mere twelve years later, he’s got magnetic encoders on the output and a fast inner loop compensates for the backlash. The result is that the current arm moves faster and smoother, while retaining accuracy.
Twelve years. I assume that [Adam] has had some other projects on his plate as well, but that’s a long term project by any account. I’m stoked to see his work, not the least because it should help a lot of others who are ready to step up their desktop servo-arm projects. But the real take-home lesson here is that if you’ve got a tough problem that you’re hacking on, you don’t have to get it done this weekend. You don’t have to get it done next weekend either. Keep hammering on it as long as you need, but keep on hammering. When you get it done, the results will be all the better for the long, slow, brewing time. What’s the longest project that you’ve ever worked on?