1 - Introduction

Why do I need a controller?

 

Micro-controllers have a number of I/O (input/output) pins which can be set to 'high' (+5v) or cleared to 'low' (0v) under software control. So you may assume that you can connect a dc motor directly to two such pins. Seting pin1 high and pin 2 low would make the motor go one way; setting pin 1 low and pin 2 high would make the motor go the other way. Theoretically this is okay. In practice it will fry your microcontroller. Why? Well the pins on your microcontroller are only capable of supplying a few milli-amps of current (they are designed for driving other logic chips) - but your motor (being a big physical 'thing') requires a lot of power to make it move. The purpose of a motor controller is to convert the small powered signals from your micro-controller into more powerful signals that can drive motors. Given that 'Power = Amps * Volts' and 'Volts' is a fixed number then the power required is proportional to the current required. The more current then the more power. But power generates heat. And this is why you will 'fry' your controller. It will try to generate lots of current in order to drive the motor but this current will create heat, and since your controller has no heatsink, then it will melt !!

 

Stall current

Motors will require more current when they are under stress. So if you hold your robot in the air and allow the motors to turn then, because there is no resistance, they will need the smallest amount of current,. Now put your robot on the floor: and the weight of the robot will create friction and so the motors require more power to overcome this. Now if your robot is going up a steep hill or, worse, has hit a solid wall and is therefore trying to turn the motors but the wall prevents it from doing so then the motors are under the maximum amount of stress. This latter scenario is known as the 'stall current' and you need to make sure that your circuit doesn't get fried by this peak requirement. You can measure this 'stall current' with your multimeter by connecting the motor to your battery so that it turns and then hold the axle to stop it from turning. This 'stall current' is a very important value to measure for DC motors as it dictates the maximum current that your motor driver needs to provide. Without it your robot may work fine until it hits a wall and then 'hey presto', the current goes up and your circuitry melts!

 

Alien

If the above is too technical then think about the Alien movie where Sigourney Weaver gets into that robot suit that makes her 'extra strong'. That suit is a 'motor controller' - it converts her puny (but lovely!) movements into a much more powerful movement.

 

Stages

Think of your electronics in this way:-

1. The micro-controller works at 5 volts and small current. It is enough to drive other 'chips' but not motors. I call this the logic stage - as all of the electronics will work in this world. The logical world.

2. Motors work in another world of high current, higher voltages, heat, current spikes etc. The real/physical world.

3. You need something that sits in-between these worlds that converts micro-controller signals into something more powerfull that can control a motor. This is a motor controller.