This chapter introduces several types of motors commonly used in robotic and related applications.

DC motors

are inexpensive, small, and powerful motors that are widely used. Gear-train reductions are typically needed to reduce the speed and increase the torque output of the motor.

Stepper motors

also called actuators, do not rotate continuously, but turn in fixed increments, and resist a change in their fixed positions. They require special driving circuits to apply the correct sequence of currents to their multiple coils. They are commonly used in robotics, particular in mechanisms that perform linear positioning, such as floppy and hard disk drive head motors and X-Y tables.

Servo motors   

are used for angular positioning, such as in radio control airplanes to control the position of wing flaps, or in RC cars to turn the wheels. The output shaft of a servo does not rotate freely as do the shafts of DC motors, but rather is made to seek a particular angular position under electronic control. In effect, a servo motor is a combination of a DC motor, a shaft position sensor, and a feedback circuit. A servo motor also usually includes a built-in gear-train and is capable of delivering high torques directly. No servo motors are included in the 1999 ELEC 201 kit.

DC Motors


DC motors are widely used in robotics because of their small size and high energy output. They are excellent for powering the drive wheels of a mobile robot as well as powering other mechanical assemblies.

Ratings and Specifications   

Several characteristics are important in selecting a DC motor. The first two are its input ratings that specify the electrical characteristics of the motor.

Operating Voltage.
If batteries are the source of power for the motor, low operating voltages are desirable because fewer cells are needed to obtain the specified voltage. However, the electronics to drive motors are typically more efficient at higher voltages. Typical DC motors may operate on as few as 1.5 Volts or up to 100 Volts or more. Roboticists often use motors that operate on 6, 12, or 24 volts because most robots are battery powered, and batteries are typically available with these values.
Operating Current.
The ideal motor would produce a great deal of power while requiring a minimum of current. However, the current rating (in conjunction with the voltage rating) is usually a good indication of the power output capacity of a motor. The power input (current times voltage) is a good indicator of the mechanical power output. Also, a given motor draws more current as it delivers more output torque. Thus current ratings are often given when the motor is stalled. At this point it is drawing the maximum amount of current and applying maximum torque. A low voltage (e.g., 12 Volt or less) DC motor may draw from 100 mA to several amperes at stall, depending on its design.

The next three ratings describe the motor's output characteristics:

Usually this is specified as the speed in rotations per minute (RPM) of the motor when it is unloaded, or running freely, at its specified operating voltage. Typical DC motors run at speeds from one to twenty thousand RPM. Motor speed can be measured easily by mounting a disk or LEGO pulley wheel with one hole on the motor, and using a slotted optical switch and oscilloscope to measure the time between the switch openings.
The torque of a motor is the rotary force produced on its output shaft. When a motor is stalled it is producing the maximum amount of torque that it can produce. Hence the torque rating is usually taken when the motor has stalled and is called the stall torque. The motor torque is measured in ounce-inches (in the English system) or Newton-meters (metric). The torque of small electric motors is often given in milli-Newton-meters (mN-m) or 1/1000 of a N-m. A rating of one ounce-inch means that the motor is exerting a tangential force of one ounce at a radius of one inch from the center of its shaft. Torque ratings may vary from less than one ounce-inch to several dozen ounce-inches for large motors.
The power of a motor is the product of its speed and torque. The power output is greatest at about half way between the unloaded speed (maximum speed, no torque) and the stalled state (maximum torque, no speed). The output power in watts is about (torque) x (rpm) / 9.57.

Measuring Motor Torque