Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Gyroscopic, Man!

Have you seen how good accelerometer technology has got? I just bought three for $12. They have 16-bit resolution, and programmable range from 2 to 100G!

The tech has been improving ever since Nintendo introduced their Wii Nunchuck. Consumer mass production plus improving technology have driven some significant advances.

The techno-secret is in the modern ability to etch "Micro Mechanical Systems" (MEMS) onto a silicon wafer, as well as electronics. Tiny metal-coated cantilevered beams, supported on silicon pivots, with masses measured in the picograms.

I remember the original demos of this technology - micro-motors that seized up after ten seconds of runtime. A set of balance-scales that could weigh individual molecules. It was cool, but there didn't seem to be any obvious applications outside the chem lab. And silicon wafer tech works best when it's all sealed up, so it seemed like a mismatch of needs. Little did we know...

Turns out if you leave the molecule off the end of the tiny mass-scale, what you have is an inertial sensor. If the whole set of scales is moved to and fro in a way which affects the balance, then it's measurement will reflect the acceleration it's under. Boom, you have an accelerometer. You'll need one for each XYZ axis, but hey, if we're etching them on a chip that's not really a problem. (Well, maybe the Z axis...)

The sensor in the Wii Nunchuck is now an early-generation analog model. The latest devices have better everything, including a major innovation - gyros!

Knowing how fast you are accelerating in the three cartesian axes is very useful - but there's a missing set of dimensions - rotations. If you rotate a 'simple' accelerometer, it has issues distinguishing that from a lateral movement. A sideways impulse and a twist will both change the vector direction of acceleration due to gravity (hereafter called 'down') by roughly the same angle, but the twist will generally leave the vector the same length. But this subtle difference can be hard to distinguish through sampling noise.

However; if you have two accelerometers a distance apart, then you can measure the instantaneous differential, which will correspond to the gyroscopic motion. Their correlation will correspond to the pure acceleration.

That's how good the sensors have got. They can measure this difference across the chip. Barely two millimeters.

This is powering a whole new generation of mechanical devices which know exactly where they are, and how they are moving. Exactly. Better than you do. Better than GPS, in a relative moment-to-moment sense.

One offshoot is the amazing new "Toy Quadcopters" you can buy, (I just did) that sit in the air like a small flying drinks tray. Or other little home-made robots I've seen that balance on two wheels in the same manner as a Segway. (and can also carry drinks on a tray. Robotics people clearly get very thirsty.)

I'm going to use them on my telescope (along with a digital compass module) to tell which way it's pointed, and how it's moving under the influence of the motorized mount. This bypasses all the normal crap with axis encoders, which is excellent if you want to count motor shaft rotations. (because all your mechanics are perfect, predictable, and wobble-free. Ha!) That's the only case where taking measurements half-way through the mechanical chain can be expected to approximate the thing you really care about - where the optical tube is pointed relative to 'down' and 'north'.

16 bits (well, 14 really, on the 2G range including plus and minus sides) is a LOT of 'down' accuracy. As good as counting stepper increments before gearing, according to the math,

I'm also building some toy robots with the tech, but that's hardly new. Also perhaps a rugged 'wand'-like UI device that uses gestures to change settings, rather than buttons. Buttons are expensive. And big. And so... binary.

1 comment:

  1. I've since learned that Gyros actually work on a different principle from measuring differential acceleration across the chip - they're MEMS devices that contain two oscillating semi-circular plates in a single well and directly measure the 'twist' of the sensor.