Not A Pot, Not An Encoder: Exploring Synchros For Rotational Sensing

We’re all familiar with getting feedback from a rotating shaft, for which we usually employ a potentiometer or encoder. But there’s another device that, while less well-known, has some advantages that just might make it worth figuring out how to include it in hobbyist projects: the synchro.

If you’ve never heard of a synchro, don’t feel bad; as [Glen Akins] explains, it’s an expensive bit of kit most commonly found in avionics gear. It’s in effect a set of coaxial transformers with a three-phase stator coil and a single-phase rotor. When excited by an AC reference voltage, the voltage induced on the rotor coil is proportional to the cosine of the angle between the rotor and stator. It seems simple enough, but the reality is that synchros present some interfacing challenges.

[Glen] chose a surplus altitude alert indicator for his experiments, a formidable-looking piece of avionics. Also formidable was the bench full of electronics needed to drive and decode the synchro inside it — a 26-volt 400-Hz AC reference voltage generator, an industrial data acquisition module to digitize the synchro output, and an ESP32 dev board with a little OLED display to show the results. And those are impressive; as seen in the video below, the whole setup is capable of detecting tenth-of-a-degree differences in rotation.

The blog post has a wealth of detail on using synchros, as does this Retrotechtacular piece from our own [Al Williams]. Are they practical for general hobbyist use? Probably not, but it’s still cool to see them put to use.

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Retrotechtacular: Synchros Go To War (and Peace)

Rotation. Motors rotate. Potentiometers and variable capacitors often rotate. It is a common task to have to rotate something remotely or measure the rotation of something. If I asked you today to rotate a volume control remotely, for example, you might offer up an open loop stepper motor or an RC-style servo. If you wanted to measure a rotation, you’d likely use some sort of optical or mechanical encoder. However, there’s a much older way to do those same tasks and one that still sees use in some equipment: a synchro.

The synchro dates back to the early 1900s when the Panama Canal used them to read and control valves and gates. These devices were very common in World War II equipment, too. In particular, they were often part of the mechanisms that set and read gun azimuth and elevation or — like the picture to the left — a position indication of a radar antenna. Even movie cameras used these devices for many years. Today, with more options, you don’t see them as much except in applications where their simplicity and ruggedness is necessary.

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