Arduino and Servos (Shallow Thoughts)

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing, Science, and Nature.

Sun, 23 Jun 2013

Arduino and Servos

[Servo wired up to Arduino, without separate battery] My quest to make physical things move with Arduinos continues as we ramp up to Wednesday's GetSET workshop.

A few nights ago I finally broke out some old airplane servos and hooked them up to the Arduino. Don't know why I'd never gotten around to that, but I hadn't.

I had to decode the wire colors, aided by this excellent Connector Types page from Servo City. The GWS Naro servo I chose, with a JR plug, has a red wire (power), a brown wire (ground) and an orange wire (signal). Easy enough.

The Arduino software has a built-in Servo library, with instructions on wiring things up and a sample "Sweep" program to run the servo through its paces. Easy. I hooked it up and in just a few minutes I had the servo arm sweeping. Servos are so easy!

Or so I thought. The next day, I tried turning it into a real application, and that's where my problems started. I added a couple of photoresistors to my basic servo circuit and wrote a quick sketch to hook up the servo and print the output from the photoresistors to the serial port, as a first step before making it actually move the servos in response to the light coming in.

And ... nothing. Not only did I not get any output on my serial console, but I couldn't even open the serial console -- /dev/ttyACM0 didn't exist on my computer, or if it did, I got an error trying to open it. I couldn't even download new versions of the sketch, since those, too, are downloaded over the ACM0 serial device.

It turns out that servos, like larger motors, need a separate power source. Sometimes you can get away with powering them from the Arduino's 5v supply, but sometimes it will lead to flaky results.

This is contrary to every tutorial I found on the web. The official Arduino.cc Servo library documentation says "The power wire is typically red, and should be connected to the 5V pin on the Arduino board." and adds "Note that servos draw considerable power, so if you need to drive more than one or two, you'll probably need to power them from a separate supply (i.e. not the +5V pin on your Arduino). Be sure to connect the grounds of the Arduino and external power supply together."

And the Adafruit motor shield documentation says, "Servos are powered off of the same regulated 5V that the Arduino uses. This is OK for the small hobby servos suggested. If you want something beefier, cut the trace going to + on the servo connectors and wire up your own 5-6V supply!"

Basically, everywhere you turn people will tell you that for one or two servos, there's no point in fussing with a separate power supply. But when I went to the #arduino IRC channel, the experts there assured me that all the web tutorials were wrong, and that power was almost certainly my problem -- even with a single tiny GWS Naro servo.

And sure enough, when I added a 7.4v li-po battery as the power source for the servo, all my problems went away. Serial communication worked fine, and the servo was less jumpy. It's probably less risky to the Arduino, too.

The weirdest part of all this? When I tried to power it all off the Arduino's power supply (from USB), the servo was working fine, moving to wherever I told it. It was just serial communications to the PC that was failing.

I still have yet to find a good, simple way to power servos if you can't power them off the Arduino's 5v supply. Apparently their maximum voltage is 6V, and it's risky giving them any more than that. Right now I have a 7.4V li-po pack going through a speed controller; I'm not using the speed controller for anything except voltage regulation. Pretty silly.

I tried using a 4 AA pack, but that didn't seem to have enough oomph to power the servos. Maybe the answer is to add a 5v voltage regulator to the circuit, but that makes it a little difficult for robotics classes.

So, anyway, don't believe what you read on the net. That little 5v port is not a reliable power source even for one small hobby servo. Spread the word! And have fun playing with servos, whatever you end up using as a power source.

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[ 20:43 Jun 23, 2013    More hardware | permalink to this entry | comments ]
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