Hackaday Dictionary: Open- and Closed-Loop Systems

Today on Hackaday Dictionary, we’re going to talk about the two basic types of control systems: open-loop and closed-loop. We’ll describe the differences between them and explore the various advantages and disadvantages of each. And finally, we’ll talk about what happens when you try to draw a line between the two.

 

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And there was much rejoicing. Image via Racoon Valley Electric Cooperative

Control Systems

Control systems are literally all around us. They’re illuminating our rooms, laundering our unmentionables, and conspiring to make us late for work. Most of us probably use or interact with at least five control systems before we’re even out the door in the morning. Odds are you’re using a control system to read this article.

When we say ‘control system’, we’re speaking broadly. A control system is defined as any system that exhibits control over a function. It doesn’t matter how big or small the function is. A standard light switch is a simple type of control system. Flip it back and forth and the light is either on or off with no in between. Too bright? Too bad. There is no way to account for light intensity preference, use duration, energy output, or anything else.

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A humble clothes dryer. Image via Showplace Rents

Another common example in discussing control system theory is the clothing dryer. Set the timer on the dryer and it will run until time expires. Will it run long enough to dry everything without shrinking anything? The only way to know is to open the door and check.

Both the light switch and the clothes dryer are open-loop systems. The process is a straight line from start to finish, and they operate without concern for their output. Once the light switch is flipped to the on position, current will flow until the switch is reversed. The switch doesn’t know if the bulb is burned out or even screwed into the socket to begin with. And the clothes dryer doesn’t care if your clothes are damp or dry or totally shrunken when time runs out.

 

Stay in the Loop

In a closed-loop system, the process begins the same way it does in an open-loop system. But a closed-loop system has one or more feedback loops in place that can adjust the process. Sometimes the feedback will simply cause the process to repeat until the desired result is achieved.

Both of our open-loop control system examples above could easily be converted to closed-loop systems. A more advanced light switch might take input from a photo cell, or it could poll a motion detector and turn the lights off after a period of no detectable activity in the room. The clothes dryer could be improved with the addition of a moisture sensor. Since the humidity level in the dryer will change during the cycle, why not poll a DHT22 and re-run the process until a predetermined humidity level is reached? Then the dryer becomes a closed-loop system. No more reaching in and fondling the towels and shirt collars to make sure everything is dry. Well, at least in theory.

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What are they telling you? xkcd #1116

Some control systems exist in both forms. Traffic lights are a good example of this phenomenon. Some lights are open-loop and simply run on a schedule. Many more of them are closed-loop and will cycle differently depending on traffic flow or information received from other traffic lights. The really smart ones have Emergency Vehicle Preemption (EVP) receivers. This is the system that allows fire trucks and some other emergency vehicles to change the lights in their favor. A device in the vehicle strobes a specific pattern at the receiver module on the light post, and the light changes as soon as possible.

 

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Cruise control via Wikipedia

Advantages and Disadvantages

The main advantage of closed-loop systems is fairly obvious: using feedback means more and better control. But there are trade-offs. It’s almost impossible to deal with all the what-ifs in creating any system, and this generates unforeseen issues. They aren’t all bad, though. Maybe you’re sitting peacefully in the corner engrossed in a book, and the motion detector-driven lights shut off because you aren’t moving around enough.  That isn’t ideal, but it’s easy enough to turn the lights back on and keep reading.

The unforeseen issues can be so much worse than sudden darkness. Case in point: robotic vacuum cleaners. Here you have a complexly closed-loop system to take care of one of life’s drudgeries. Should be awesome, right? Yes, but because it is blind to everything but its pre-programmed boundaries, it doesn’t know not to spread messes around.

A lot of closed-loop control systems look great on paper, but their imperfections become clear in execution. Take cruise control for example. Here is a system that’s better at its job than humans are. It will maintain the set speed until you hit the brakes or run out of gas. It will perform as intended whether there is a headwind or a tailwind or you’re towing a boat or transporting rowdy children. But cruise control isn’t aware of cliffs or guard rails or deer darting out in front of the car. Cruise control keeps its head down and does its job until it can’t go on.

Open-loop systems may not be as smart as closed-loop systems, but they often shine in their simplicity. For the most part, they do what you expect them to do. Light goes on, light goes off. And they are arguably more dependable since there are fewer things that can go wrong. Of course, a “simple” open-loop control system can mean a steeper learning curve. It’s not easy to learn to drive a manual transmission. But if you don’t know how to drive one, you’re missing out on some nice advantages, like the ability to push start the thing if you have to, and the option to downshift instead of pumping the brakes in icy conditions. So the question is this: is an open-loop system more valuable than a closed-loop system if it means having more control over the process? Does it depend entirely on the process in question?

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This tricycle is simultaneously safe and unsafe. Image via Apple Door

Open-Loop vs. Closed-Loop

So where exactly does open-loop end and closed-loop begin? The line seems clear for some systems, but muddy for others. How much feedback is enough to qualify? Add just about anything to a light switch and it seems safe to say that you took it from open- to closed-loop.

More often than not, the line between the two is blurry. Think of a motorized garage door.  You push the button and the door either opens or closes. Push it again and the door moves in the opposite direction. Most modern garage doors have a fail-safe in place to stop the garage door in the event of an emergency. If the door encounters any resistance, it will stop and reverse direction.

The break beam detector is supposed to keep people and their tricycles from being crushed if they happen to be in the way while the door is closing. But it only works if the person or thing breaks the IR beam. There’s only one beam, and it sits about six inches off the floor. The motorized garage door system is actually quite limited because it has no positional awareness. It doesn’t know where it is on the track, it’s just going up and down blindly, waiting for input or resistance.

Not all doors can be counted on to stop if they feel resistance—I tested mine and it kept on going. So if I don’t pull far enough into the garage and then put the door back down, it might hit the protruding rear end of my hatchback. It’s in the way of the door closing, but it sits way too high to break the beam. So is the garage door really, truly a closed-loop system?

Hackaday Dictionary: Transformers

Funny stuff, electricity. It’s all about the volts and the amps, and controlling these two factors. Most of the time, the electricity coming into your device is at a higher voltage than you need, so you have to convert it down to something more usable. The easiest way to do this is with a transformer.

The transformer in your power supply takes a high voltage from the mains and converts it down into a lower voltage to power your gadgets. You’ll find one in all power supplies, from the miniature USB version that powers your cell phone to the big ones hanging on a telephone pole that drive your home’s mains electricity. Although these transformers are different sizes, they share the same fundamental design.

Continue reading “Hackaday Dictionary: Transformers”

Hackaday Dictionary: Ultrasonic Communications

Say you’ve got a neat gadget you are building. You need to send data to it, but you want to keep it simple. You could add a WiFi interface, but that sucks up power. Bluetooth Low Energy uses less power, but it can get complicated, and it’s overkill if you are just looking to send a small amount of data. If your device has a microphone, there is another way that you might not have considered: ultrasonic communications. Continue reading “Hackaday Dictionary: Ultrasonic Communications”

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.

(Headline image bots: µBob and Hexapod4.)

Hackaday Dictionary: Bluetooth Low Energy

Bluetooth is one of the mainstays of the mobile gadget world, allowing mobile devices to communicate easily over short distances. It’s how your wireless headset talks to your cell phone without the complexity and power requirements of WIFi. In particular, the Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) component is interesting for those who build portable gadgets, because it requires a very small amount of power. Continue reading “Hackaday Dictionary: Bluetooth Low Energy”

Hackaday Dictionary: The Global Positioning System (GPS)

One of the fundamental technologies of modern gadgets is the Global Positioning System (GPS). Using signals from satellites orbiting the earth, a GPS receiver can pin down its location with remarkable accuracy: the latest generation of Civilian Navigation Signals (CNAV) sent by the US GPS system has an accuracy of less than half a meter (about 3 feet). These signals also contain the time, accurate to within milliseconds, which makes it perfect for off-line dataloggers and systems that require very accurate timing. That’s a powerful combination that has made GPS one of the main technologies behind the mobile revolution, because it lets gadgets know where (and when) they are.

Continue reading “Hackaday Dictionary: The Global Positioning System (GPS)”