Dr. Ahmed G. Abo-Khalil

Electrical Engineering Department

RC servos

RC servos are hobbyist remote control devices servos typically employed in radio-controlled models, where they are used to provide actuation for various mechanical systems such as the steering of a car, the control surfaces on a plane, or the rudder of a boat.

Due to their affordability, reliability, and simplicity of control by microprocessors, RC servos are often used in small-scale robotics applications.

RC servos are composed of an electric motor mechanically linked to a potentiometer. A standard RC receiver sends pulse-width modulation (PWM) signals to the servo. The electronics inside the servo translate the width of the pulse into a position. When the servo is commanded to rotate, the motor is powered until the potentiometer reaches the value corresponding to the commanded position.

RC servos use a three-pin 0.1" spacing jack (female) which mates to standard 0.025" square pins. The most common order is signal, +voltage, ground. The standard voltage is 4.8 V DC, however 6 V and 12 V has also been seen for a few servos. The control signal is a digital PWM signal with a 50 Hz frame rate. Within each 20 ms timeframe, an active-high digital pulse controls the position. The pulse nominally ranges from 1.0 ms to 2.0 ms with 1.5 ms always being center of range. Pulse widths outside this range can be used for "overtravel" -moving the servo beyond its normal range. This PWM signal is sometimes (incorrectly) called Pulse Position Modulation (PPM).

The servo is controlled by three wires: ground, power, and control. The servo will move based on the pulses sent over the control wire, which set the angle of the actuator arm. The servo expects a pulse every 20 ms in order to gain correct information about the angle. The width of the servo pulse dictates the range of the servo's angular motion.

A servo pulse of 1.5 ms width will typically set the servo to its "neutral" position or 45°, a pulse of 1.25 ms could set it to 0° and a pulse of 1.75 ms to 90°. The physical limits and timings of the servo hardware varies between brands and models, but a general servo's angular motion will travel somewhere in the range of 90° - 120° and the neutral position is almost always at 1.5 ms. This is the "standard pulse servo mode" used by all hobby analog servos.

A hobby digital servo is controlled by the same "standard pulse servo mode" pulses as an analog servo. Some hobby digital servos can be set to another mode that allows a robot controller to read back the actual position of the servo shaft. Some hobby digital servos can optionally be set to another mode and "programmed", so it has the desired PID controller characteristics when it is later driven by a standard RC receiver.

RC servos are usually powered by the receiver which in turn is powered by battery packs or an electronic speed controller (ESC) with an integrated or a separate battery eliminator circuit (BEC). Common battery packs are either NiCd, NiMH or lithium-ion polymer battery (LiPo) type. Voltage ratings vary, but most receivers are operated at 5 V or 6 V.

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