Arduino – Modifying a Robot Arm

Essentially another tutorial involving controlling DC motors. In this post I’m going to first alter a robot arm I had built previously from a beginners kit so that it can...

Essentially another tutorial involving controlling DC motors. In this post I’m going to first alter a robot arm I had built previously from a beginners kit so that it can be controlled from Arduino. Then I’m going to write a series of posts on different ways to control the robot arm using Processing and other things. You should be able to use all of what I write for work with other toys and motors.

To start with have a look at the robot arm, it’s an ‘Edge Robotic Arm Kit‘:

The kit is a basic construction one and costs about £30 which you can find in most gadget shops and web stores. You assemble a gear box for each motor/ joint in the arm, doesn’t take long to build (about an hour) and is controlled by a set of switches on a control box. The only thing to note here is we’re dealing with motors, not servos or stepper motors just bog standard DC motors. This means calculating positions isn’t going to be straightforward later on. The kit has 5 motors and 4 ‘D’ series batteries to power them and can lift about 100 grammes.

So this version has a controller attached that lets you move each motor by pressing a switch, the electrics are pretty basic and don’t allow much control or further input. I have seen other versions that allow you to plug it in to a computer via USB but you pretty much have the same controls.

In order for us to build our own controls/ interfaces and software we need to modify the arm to allow us to interface our microcontroller – in this case an Arduino board. The best way I think do this, since we want to control a motor going backwards and forward, is to use H-bridge chips – the L293D and SN754410 and wire each motor into a chip and then alter the power circuit to run these chips. Arduino can then digitally control the H-bridge chip to turn the motor on/off and change its direction.

You can see some other work I’ve done with motor DC motor control and I’ll be covering the same info throughout these posts.

Arduino Robot Arm Parts

3 H-bridge chips – I heavily recommend using the sn754410 chip but you can probably get away with the L293 series. Each chip can control 2 motors – 5 motors = 3 chips.
Arduino Deumilanova w/ ATMEGA328
Breadboard/ Prototyping board
Jumper/ Connector wires
Wire cutters/ strippers

Hacking the Robot Arm

I hope you’re not too precious about wanting to use the control unit again, thats the first thing to go! I did look at working with this but it doesn’t give the level of control that I want. Also I’ll be cutting and stripping the wires and removing the control circuit from the arm. The only permanent damage is done to the wires – basically cutting the plugs off of the wires, so you could always get new plugs if you wanted to revert it, although once I’ve shown you what can be done I don’t think you’ll mind.

Step 1
First we need to create our breadboard layout so we can plug in all the wires, we’re going to be using alot of pins on the Arduino, in fact I think I use pretty much all of them. You could reduce this using shift registers but for now its not an issue, although please follow the wiring diagrams as this layout gives the least hassle. Some pins e.g. digital pin 13 will make the motors move when the board is powering up so we want to avoid this.

First of all we need to put our H-Bridge chips on the breadboard. Make sure to put them in the center like illustrated. This means the 2 sides of the chip are isolated – it will not work otherwise!

Next using the above image and the following wiring diagram for the chip connect the ground and power for each chip leaving space for the motors and Arduino pins. Note that the red wires are connecting the rails together so the power will flow around the whole board! These chips will be using the battery power that runs the motors in the arm – the power will be plugged into the board, the Arduino pins are there to switch the chips on/ off etc… I’ve also got a table of outputs I’ve done for each pin on the H-Bridge chip, it’s the same for either the L293 series or SN754410, pin configuration diagram below. The numbers 1-16 also correspond to the numbers on the images of the circuit.

H-Bridge Pin Configuration

1 to pin on Arduino board
2 to pin on Arduino board
3 to motor1 (either + or -) it wont matter as its DC
4 to the gnd (-) rail on the breadboard
5 to the gnd (-) rail on the breadboard
6 to motor1
7 to pin Arduino
8 to power (+) rail.
9 to pin Arduino
10 to pin Arduino
11 to motor2
12 to GND (-) rail
13 to GND (-) rail
14 to motor2
15 to pin Arduino
16 to power (+) rail.

So you should have 3 chips on the board and be ready to add the motors and connections to Arduino.

Step 2
Now the circuit layout is complete we can start stripping down the arm. First remove the control unit and unscrew the panel above the battery pack – this should have all the motors plugged in to it. We’re going to systematically disconnect each motor plug, remove the plug, strip the wires a little bit and wire it on to the breadboard. When stripping the wires, remember to twist the exposed wires to prevent them becoming stranded – or solder pins to the wires.

Here’s the first motor in on the first chip:

Its important to remember which motor you’re plugging in to which chip but it’s not too much of an issue as with the software we’ll be writing later on we can work around this with our code, just so long as each motor is wired into a chip as above. Below is a list of my Arduino pins used.

Shoulder motor
chip 1, pin 1 to Arduino pin 14 (Analog pin o)
chip 1, pin 2 to Arduino pin 15 (Analog pin 1)
chip 1, pin 7 to Arduino pin 16 (Analog pin 2)
Base motor
chip 1, pin 9 to Arduino pin 2
chip 1, pin 10 to Arduino pin 3
chip 1, pin 15 to Arduino pin 4
Elbow motor
chip 2, pin 1 to Arduino pin 8
chip 2, pin 2 to Arduino pin 9
chip 2, pin 7 to Arduino pin 10
Wrist motor
chip 2, pin 9 to Arduino pin 5
chip 2, pin 10 to Arduino pin 6
chip 2, pin 15 to Arduino pin 7
Hand motor
chip 3, pin 9 to Arduino pin 11
chip 3, pin 10 to Arduino pin 17 (Analog pin 3)
chip 4, pin 15 to Arduino pin 18 (Analog pin 4)

You’ll notice that rather than refer to the motors as M1, M2, M3 as the kit does, I’m calling them something more meaningful as I think it makes them easier to identify – you should be able to figure out which motor is which from my description I would hope!

Second motor in:

You can see the battery power has been added. If you have any problems you can always connect one motor at a time and use a quick sketch to test the circuit is working and below is some simple codeto help you do that. For later tutorials this isn’t going to change much.

int baseMotorEnablePin = 2;
int baseMotorPin1 = 3;
int baseMotorPin2 = 4;
int shoulderMotorEnablePin = 14;
int shoulderMotorPin1 = 15;
int shoulderMotorPin2 = 16;
int elbowMotorEnablePin = 8;
int elbowMotorPin1 = 9;
int elbowMotorPin2 = 10;
int wristMotorEnablePin = 5;
int wristMotorPin1 = 6;
int wristMotorPin2 = 7;
int handMotorEnablePin = 11
int handMotorPin1 = 17;
int handMotorPin2 = 18; 

void setup() {
  // set the motor pins as outputs:
  // set all chips to enabled state
  pinMode(baseMotorPin1, OUTPUT);
  pinMode(baseMotorPin2, OUTPUT);
  pinMode(baseMotorEnablePin, OUTPUT);
  digitalWrite(baseMotorEnablePin, HIGH);
  pinMode(shoulderMotorPin1, OUTPUT);
  pinMode(shoulderMotorPin2, OUTPUT);
  pinMode(shoulderMotorEnablePin, OUTPUT);
  digitalWrite(shoulderMotorEnablePin, HIGH);
  pinMode(elbowMotorPin1, OUTPUT);
  pinMode(elbowMotorPin2, OUTPUT);
  pinMode(elbowMotorEnablePin, OUTPUT);
  digitalWrite(elbowMotorEnablePin, HIGH);
  pinMode(wristMotorPin1, OUTPUT);
  pinMode(wristMotorPin2, OUTPUT);
  pinMode(wristMotorEnablePin, OUTPUT);
  digitalWrite(wristMotorEnablePin, HIGH);


void loop() {
    // SET either one to HIGH to turn the motor on.
    // e.g.
    digitalWrite(baseMotorPin1, LOW);
    digitalWrite(baseMotorPin2, HIGH);
    digitalWrite(baseMotorPin1, LOW);
    digitalWrite(baseMotorPin2, LOW);
    // more motors here added.
    digitalWrite(shoulderMotorPin1, LOW);
    digitalWrite(shoulderMotorPin2, LOW);
    digitalWrite(elbowMotorPin1, LOW);
    digitalWrite(elbowMotorPin2, LOW);
    digitalWrite(wristMotorPin1, LOW);
    digitalWrite(wristMotorPin2, LOW);


Step 3
So now you should have all the motors wired to chips on the breadboard, now we just add the power to the board and we’re done – this is the power from the robot arm batteries, it can connect on either side of the breadboard as long as its connected to the power rails. Also remember to connect a wire from the GND rail on the breadboard to a GND pin on Arduino – there must be a common ground connection between Arduino and the H-bridge chips for this to work. Lastly Find a way to secure the Arduino and breadboard to the arm to minimise the risk of wires disconnecting, I just used some blu-tak (modelling clay etc..).

And here’s the final thing:

If you want to avoid the breadboard and make a more permanent circuit you should be able ot follow this, just make sure that the pins on each side of the H-Bridge are completely isolated from each other.

So thats it, the arm is ready to go – you can add your own switches and inputs to control this but we’re going  to have some fun writing software to control this arm in the next part to move each motor AND after that we’re going to be looking at using Inverse Kinematics and trigonometry to do some cool controlling of all the motors of the arm and to maybe start program tasks.

Oh, Inverse Kinematics basically means we can program the arm to go after a target moving all the motors in combination to do this – trust me it is very cool!

Arduino – Controlling the Robot Arm with Processing: Using Processing and my laptop to control the arm

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