Primer on Servos Hits All the Basics

Servos are pretty basic fare for the seasoned hacker. But everyone has to start somewhere, and there’s sure to be someone who’ll benefit from this primer on servo internals. Who knows – maybe even the old hands will pick up something from a fresh perspective.

[GreatScott!] has been building a comprehensive library of basic electronics videos over the last few years that covers everything from using a multimeter to programming an Arduino. The last two installments delve into the electromechanical realm with a treatment of stepper motors along with the servo video below. He covers the essentials of the modern RC-type servo in a clear and engaging style that makes it easy for the newbie to understand how a PWM signal can translate into positional changes over a 180° sweep. He shows how to control a servo directly with an Arduino, with bonus points for including a simple 555-based controller circuit too. A quick look at the mods needed to convert any servo to continuous rotation wraps up the video.

If [GreatScott!]’s video whets your appetite for more, be sure to check out [Richard Baguley]’s deeper dive into servos. And when you’re ready to put your new-found knowledge into practice, maybe a nice project would be to convert a hobby servo into a linear actuator.

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Converting an Electric Scooter to Lithium Batteries and Disabling the Safeties

There’s a bunch of different electric scooters available nowadays, including those hoverboards that keep catching fire. [TK] had an older Razor E300 that uses lead acid batteries. After getting tired of the low speeds and 12 hour charge times, [TK] decided it was time to swap for lithium batteries.

The new batteries were sourced from a Ryobi drill. Each provides 18 V, giving 36 V in series. The original batteries only ran at 24 V, which caused some issues with the motor controller. It refused to start up with the higher voltage. The solution: disable the safety shutdown relay on the motor controller by bridging it with a wire.

With the voltage issue sorted out, it was time for the current limit to be modified. This motor controller uses a TI TL494 to generate the PWM waveforms that drive a MOSFET to provide variable power to the motor. Cutting the trace to the TL494’s current sense pin removed the current limit all together.

We’re not saying it’s advisable to disable all current and voltage limits on your scooter, but it seems to be working out for [TK]. The $200 scooter now does 28 km/h, up from 22 km/h and charges much faster. With gearing mods, he’s hoping to eke out some more performance.

After the break, the full conversion video.

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A Tiny Servo Motor Controller

If you’re building a moving thing with a microcontroller, you’ll probably want to throw a servo controller in the mix. Driving a servo or two with a microcontroller takes away valuable cycles that just babysit the servo, making sure all the PWM signals are in sync. The thing is, most servo controllers are a massive overkill, and you don’t need that much to control a few servos over a UART. The proof of this is an attiny13 servo controller over on

[arief] developed his tiny servo controller around one of the tiniest microcontrollers – the ATtiny13. This chip has just 1kB of Flash and 64 Bytes of RAM, but that’s enough to keep a few servos going and listen in to a UART for commands to drive the servo.

The construction of this servo controller board is simple enough – just a single sided board, microcontroller, and a few headers, caps, and resistors. Commands are sent to the ATtiny through a half duplex UART we covered before, with servos responding to simple serial commands.

If you’re building a robot army, this is the board to make. You’re going to need a high-powered controller to take over the world, but there’s no need to bog down that controller by babysitting a few servos.

Taking the Pulse (Width Modulation) of an FPGA

I like to think that there are four different ways people use FPGAs:

  1. Use the FPGA as a CPU which allows you to add predefined I/O blocks
  2. Build custom peripherals for an external CPU from predefined I/O blocks
  3. Build custom logic circuitry from scratch
  4. Projects that don’t need an FPGA, but help you learn

I’d bet the majority of FPGA use falls into categories one and two. Some FPGAs even have CPUs already built-in. Even without an onboard CPU, you can usually put a CPU “core” (think reusable library) into the chip. Either way, you can always add other cores to create UARTs, USB, Ethernet, PWM, or whatever other I/O you happen to need. You either connect them to a CPU on the chip, or an external one. With today’s tools, you often pick what you want from a list and then your entire project becomes a software development effort.

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Pulse Density Modulation

[esot.eric] was trying to drive a motor and naturally thought of using pulse width modulation (PWM) to control the motor speed. However, he found that even with a large capacitor, his underpowered power supply would droop before the PWM cycles were complete. So instead of PWM he decided to experiment with pulse density modulation.

The idea is to use smaller pulses over a longer period of time and make the average power equal to the percentage motor speed desired. With a PWM system, for example, if the time period is T, a 50% PWM drive would have the  drive high for T/2 and low for the other half of the cycle. With pulse density, each pulse might be T/10 (as an example) and then the output would be on for 1/10, off for 1/10, on for 1/10 and so on, until by time T you’d still get to 50%. The advantage is the output capacitor gets a kick more often and has less opportunity to droop.

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Redlining Your CPU via Automotive Tachometer

Many CPU-usage widgets have stylistically borrowed from vehicles, displaying something mimicking the tachometer found in the dashboard. [Pat] took it a step further and tried his hand at re-borrowing this style. He figured, why not use an actual physical tachometer to display how hard the CPU on his Raspberry Pi was revving?

With the goal of tuning 0-100% CPU usage to 0-8000 RPM on the tach, the first step was diagnosing the range of PWM input frequencies that moved the needle across the tach’s full arc. Using his Tektronix 3252C function generator he quickly determined 0-440 Hz would be needed and graphed a handful of intermediate points. The response curve was not linear, so he drew up some fudging guidelines to make all the datapoints match.

Next, he wrote a few lines of Python (he shared) to make the Pi to poll its CPU usage and translate it to the proper frequency. The Pi makes outputting easy, GPIO pin 11 carried the signal to a 7404 for buffering, then out to the tach. The automotive tach itself ran on 12V, but its input signal required only 5V so he pulled a 7805 from his parts bin.

Once it was all put together it worked beautifully using just the one extra component. Some might see this as more clever than USB dependent or Arduino bloated based tachometer hacks.

See the video after the break of the tach twitching even when the mouse moved, and pegging the red when opening a browser. No more need to use up valuable screen real-estate (or use a screen at all) if you want to see at a glance when your Pi is putting in work.

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