Micro Sawppy RC Input Via ESP32 RMT

As one of many options I wanted to offer on my micro Sawppy rover ESP32 brain, I wanted to teach it to understand servo motor signals sent by radio control receivers. I found an example online of a project doing a similar thing and read through their code to see how they did it. Cross checking with Espressif documentation on ESP32’s RMT peripheral, that precedent taught me how to configure RMT to read servo control PWM input.

When configured for signal receive, RMT watches the state of a digital signal and measure the time duration for on and off periods of signal pulses. There are a set of events that can be configured to trigger an interrupt service routine (ISR) for the application developer to pick up the measured data for processing. There are two challenges here. First is the general challenge of writing an ISR. There are constraints on what ISR code can do, and what APIs it can call. Violating such constraints will usually lead to mysterious hard-to-diagnose problems. The second challenge is specific to the ESP32 RMT peripheral, because the ISR code will have to know where to fetch data, which flags to check, and which flags to set or clear upon exit. Again doing this wrong usually results in weird behavior.

Fortunately, it’s not absolutely required to write my own ISR. Espressif provides a default ISR for handling RMT events and parses data into a defined format and communicated via a ring buffer, an Espressif extension to FreeRTOS. Espressif’s own RMT sample code to process infrared remote control signal uses this default ISR, and I decided to follow that precedent instead of diving into the challenge of writing my own ISR.

One of the RMT parameters is a clock divisor, stepping the default 80MHz sampling rate down to something that would work well for the signal at hand. I decided to use a divider of 80, so the signal is sampled at 1 MHz. This makes the math easier for me to understand in my head, because each RMT ‘tick’ is now one microsecond. The servo control signal pulse of 1 to 2 milliseconds maps cleanly to 1000 to 2000 microseconds. This is lower resolution than the divider of 10 used by my RC precedent, but it means I don’t have to multiply everything by eight in my head and having one thousand levels of differentiation should still be more than enough.

My first draft didn’t work because the default RMT ISR would never send data on the ring buffer. I know it is retrieving data and putting it on the ring buffer, because after a few seconds I would see “ring buffer full” error on the serial debug monitor. Eventually I figured out I misunderstood what “idle” meant in RMT documentation. I thought “idle” meant we lost the signal and need to go into some kind of recovery routine, so I set it to 32 milliseconds. This is wrong! “Idle” in this context actually meant the end of a single data signal of interest. Because servo control signals were arriving every ~16 milliseconds, the RMT idle threshold was never tripped and thus RMT thought data had not yet completed. The fix is to change idle threshold down to something far shorter than 16 milliseconds but comfortably longer than actual signal. Once I understood my problem and fixed it, RMT ISR started signaling data ready on the ring buffer, allowing me to retrieve servo control durations and translate that to my micro Sawppy joystick messages. Once that translation layer is in place, the little rover is no longer tired to a wired joystick!

Notes on ESP32 RMT Peripheral For Receiving RC PWM

I want my micro Sawppy rover’s ESP32 brain to be capable of accepting control input from multiple sources. One of them will be my Spektrum SR300 radio control receiver. I examined its output control signal with a Saleae Logic 8 to make sure I understood what I will be working with, and the next step is to figure out how to interpret those signals with an ESP32.

With no shortage of hardware peripherals, including multiple options to generate PWM signals for servo control, I was confident an ESP had something to accept input. A bit of research quickly pointed me to its RMT peripheral, which was primarily designed to interface with infrared remote controls like our living room TV. But right in the documentation it also said “Due to flexibility of RMT module, the driver can also be used to generate or receive many other types of signals” and it looks like interpreting RC PWM is one of those “many other types of signals.”

Espressif pointed to several examples, but most of them only demonstrated how to send signals. Only one demonstrated how to interpret received signals, and it was for infrared remote control. I went out to the internet community of ESP32 users to find an example interpreting RC PWM signals, and I first came across this Reddit question, which was answered by [Justin Ong] with “I’ve done it and here’s my code.” I love forum threads with answers like this.

I didn’t try to download and run this code, but it was a valuable resource for me to cross-reference against Espressif documentation. From this I understood how RMT is used to sample the input signal at a particular rate, looking for rising and falling edges and reporting the time that has transpired between those edges. Once all the pieces came together in my head I understood why it is the perfect tool for interpreting pulse-width signals for hobby servo control.

After reading this example I think I have a good grasp of RMT configuration parameters and how the code interpreted the measured time durations. The part I’m still fuzzy about is the ISR (interrupt service routine.) This is the code that actually responds to an rising or falling edge event, and retrieves data from RMT peripheral hardware registers for later processing elsewhere. There were several pieces of bitwise manipulation code that I struggled to follow due to its tie with ESP32 hardware. This is not easy for people to grasp, the code comments referenced this one out of many forum threads from people confused about what they are expected to do. I see this as a warning flag that it’s very easy to make mistakes writing a RMT ISR, so I was glad to learn that I didn’t have to.

Micro Sawppy Beta 3 USB Access Port

When my little rover Micro Sawppy Beta 3 (MSB3) is running about, its brain built from an ESP32 dev module will be running from battery power. But when I’m updating its software via USB, I have to disconnect the power line to ensure it stays separate from my computer’s USB power line. I originally intended this disconnect to be done by removing a jumper. But after the jumper proved to be too buried to be easily removed, I made a quick hack to change it into a wire. Next step: make the USB port itself easier to access, because it is very much buried in there and hard to access.

I built MSB3’s body before knowing exactly what this circuit board will look like. My original intent is to make the bottom of the tray removable, held only by a few clips. Once those clips were removed I could drop the tray and access the USB port.

Unfortunately, this meant the circuit board is dangling by all the wheel motor and steering servo connections, which meant I’m constantly running the risk of accidentally pulling some wires. Either partially, resulting in an annoying intermittent connection. Or completely, resulting in a loss of functionality or possibly worse with power flowing where it isn’t supposed to. I didn’t like that risk before, and I’m certainly not happy about it now. What I want is a way to access the micro USB port without risking any unplanned wire removal, and that port is sitting behind this unbroken plastic face.

Since this is merely a prototype, there’s no reason why that plastic face must remain unbroken. So I pulled out my drill and started drilling. Starting with a small hole to create a pilot and verify I have the correct location, and gradually working my way towards larger diameter drill bits.

One of the larger drill bits caught and split the case along a printed layer line, but I could still keep things together with my clips so there is no functional problem with the new cracks. It is merely a bit of cosmetic embarrassment, which I can tolerate for the benefit of easy access to my ESP32 dev kit’s micro USB port. There are more things I would like to have in a micro Sawppy rover control board, but this is enough for me to continue working.

Provision for Micro Sawppy Voltage Monitoring

Recent experience iterating through Micro Sawppy prototypes made it clear I underestimated the task of designing a power supply scheme to fit all of my objectives. My blind spot came from the fact Sawppy V1 was up and running with a very simple scheme for power. I had a two-cell lithium-polymer battery pack, and almost all the components on board were happy to take power directly from that battery and perform their own internal voltage regulation. The only exception was the Raspberry Pi 3 on board, to which I attached a MP1584 buck converter to supply a consistent five volts. It was very little effort to get Sawppy V1 working, so I had the misconception power schemes are easy! They are not.

In order to meet my cost objectives for Micro Sawppy, I switched to different components. These simpler components were far more particular about their power supply, so I had to take on more of the power considerations that were previously a feature built in to more expensive parts. We are now at the point where I think I need to pull the rover’s ESP32 brain into the discussion. The motivation here are the six TT gearboxes and their corresponding motors, officially rated for operation up to 6 volts but can tolerate brief periods above that.

In order to stay below that maximum, the ESP32 can limit its maximum motor control PWM duty cycle sent to the DRV8833 motor control ICs. In an ideal world, if I had a 7.4V power supply, I should be OK as long as I limit PWM duty cycle to no more than (6 / 7.4) = 81%. But this voltage value would change as the battery depletes. When the battery is fully charged at 8.4V, 81% would delivery too much power. And as it approaches depletion of 7V, 81% would be too low to obtain 6V output. What I really want is for the PWM duty cycle to be dynamically adjusted based on battery voltage.

Conveniently, the current pin assignment for ESP32 dev kit still has one input pin open and available for use. So I soldered a pair of resistors to that pin. An 1 MOhm resistor to the battery voltage pane, and a 100 KOhm resistor to ground. This gives me an 11:1 voltage divider which I should be able to read with one of ESP32’s ADC (analog-to-digital conversion) peripherals. This provision will still need corresponding software work before it’ll do anything useful. But if it doesn’t work, it should be pretty easy to clip those resistors off.

The primary objective for voltage monitoring is to dynamically adjust PWM duty cycle in order to maintain rover performance as the battery discharges. Secondary objective is to let the ESP32 send out a low battery alert if the battery is low. Sawppy V1 used an external battery voltage alarm (*) but if I can incorporate that feature into ESP32 software it’ll cut down on parts cost. At the very least, I would like to put the rover into limp mode if the battery voltage drops below a threshold, which would be a feature missing from Sawppy V1.

I expect that battery voltage drop would make the motors unreliable well before it makes the ESP32 unreliable, but as my breadboard test showed, that is still possible. So another potential work item on the to-do list is to enable ESP32 brownout detection capability and recognize when battery voltage is dragged down by rover motors.

Configurable Micro Sawppy Servo Power Supply

My first soldered control board for Micro Sawppy was a huge mess of wires, most of which were related to power distribution. I am confident future revisions will improve, partly from experience and partly from features that I won’t need anymore. One of them is visible in the center of the title picture: a jumper by a MP1584 buck converter voltage regulator. It allowed me to switch between powering the servo with that buck converter and powering the servo directly from battery input power.

Earlier I had determined that four AA alkaline batteries had the right voltage for SG90 micro servos, but that voltage would sag significantly under the load of TT gearmotors driving six wheels. Adding another battery would destroy the servo when the system is unloaded. I knew there were a lot of power losses on my earlier breadboard-based prototype. I thought a soldered board would be a more accurate test. But while it may have made some difference, it was not enough to help Micro Sawppy run reliably on four AA batteries.

If Micro Sawppy is to be powered by alkaline batteries and still avoid using a voltage regulator for servos, I would have to move upscale to higher amperage C or D batteries. I also contemplated the idea of trying one of those large rectangular 6V lantern batteries but they all share the problem of availability. Alkaline C, D, and lantern batteries were once commonplace, but they aren’t very common anymore. I had a few NiMH (nickel-metal hydride) rechargeable batteries in AA form factor, who have the ambition to replace C and D batteries with a few adapter sleeves. I tested them and also found they could not sustain the required amperage under heavy draw.

I could also have multiple four-AA banks in parallel, or have separate power sources: one bank of four AA batteries just for steering servos, driving the remainder of the rover on some other power source. This complexity feels extremely inelegant and I can’t yet think of any reason why this path would be better than conceding that I will need a voltage regulator for steering servos.

So I moved the jumper to the other position, and started using a MP1584 buck converter breakout board set to produce 5.4V. This is between the valid range of 4.8V and 6V, and it is two volts under the nominal 7.4V of 2-cell LiPo I’m using to test this circuit. This two volt margin should be enough for MP1584 buck converter to work.

I used a MP1584 breakout board here because I had leftovers from a multipack (*) I bought for earlier projects, but I’m not confident they are the right device for the job. The datasheet claims it can sustain two amps of output with occasional spikes to maximum of 3 amps. Four SG90 micro servos would usually stay well under that limit, but their power consumption can spike occasionally making capacity planning unpredictable. At the very minimum I should put an electrolytic capacitor to buffer its output, and experimentation will tell me if I need more than that. I might also try to monitor the input voltage level.


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Power Distribution Complicates First Soldered Prototype Circuit

One of my ESP32 dev kit modules was too wide to be breadboard-friendly. But it had reduced pin count, making for a smaller overall footprint on a circuit board so I used it as the centerpiece for a perforated board prototype. This Micro Sawppy control board has the functionality of my breadboard prototype plus a few enhancements.

When I set out to plan my ESP32 control pin assignments, I laid them out roughly in the same physical relationship as they would be on a rover, hoping this would make control wire routing easier. I’m happy to report that this planning paid off, the motor control signal wires were very straightforward to route. For the servo control signals I reused wires from micro servos I negligently destroyed, and for DC motor control signal pairs I pulled solid core wires out of a CAT5E cable which was conveniently in already-twisted together pairs.

What I did not plan out was power distribution, which was something I knew was a challenge yet I had no plan beyond “maybe soldering would help”. Well, the lack of planning really showed in the utter mess of wiring that resulted, as more than half of the wires visible are for power distribution of one context or another. Which wasn’t helped by the fact I used thicker 22AWG wires for power distribution taking up far more space than low-amperage control signal wires. I definitely need to put some thought into power distribution for the next control board revision.

In the middle of the title image is a yellow jumper. When it is in place, the ESP32’s VIN pin is connected to this board’s battery power, letting it run standalone. This jumper must be removed before I upload new software to my ESP32. If not removed and the battery is not connected, the rover will try to run on power from the computer’s USB port which will not work possibly destroying the USB port. Or if the battery is connected, it will send battery voltage into the computer’s USB port which is also a bad thing. Unfortunately this setup doesn’t have the physical exclusion design in my solid-core wire breadboard version. I am scared of forgetting this jumper and want to bring physical exclusion back in a future revision.

I have another jumper on this soldered prototype board, but it serves a completely different purpose.

Another ESP32 Dev Kit Layout

After destroying a few SG90 micro servos and admitting I should have known better, I think the breadboard prototype circuit board has fulfilled its mission and it’s time to move on. My next iteration of Micro Sawppy rover control circuit will be a perforated prototype board with soldered connections. Having soldered connections will help give me more reliable connections and also reduce loss of electrical power from thin wires, which may or may not help with my power supply problems.

For my breadboard prototype I chose one of the ESP32 development modules that were narrow enough to fit well on a breadboard, leaving room on either side for jumper wires. (Left module on title image.) The narrow width meant there was no room left for pin labels, but I found a paper template that I could use to help with pin identification.

Now that I am building a soldered circuit, I no longer need to use the narrow module. So I pulled out a different development module I had bought(*) for exploring ESP32 development. (Right module on title image.) This one is wider and longer, giving us several advantages including screw mounting holes in each corner. Even thought it was longer, we have fewer pins to worry about, because this design didn’t bother to bring out the six pins corresponding to this ESP32 module’s built-in flash memory. We couldn’t use those pins in our design anyway so it was no huge loss. Conveniently, those flash memory pins were divided three on each side, so their removal still left the layout symmetric. A fourth pin was dropped from each side. On one side, an extraneous ground pin and on the other, pin zero was omitted. This is technically an available I/O pin but using it is tricky. It is a part of ESP32 startup process, the pin pulled to ground by the BOOT button. I had considered it a “pin of last resort” and avoided allocating it in my allocation scheme, so its subtraction from this module was fine for my use. All of the remaining IO pins are brought out on this module, and it even maintained the same relative ordering of those pins making it familiar to use. Helped by the fact that its more generous width also allowed onboard labels on these pins, eliminating the need for a paper template.

On board the module, I saw a very similar set of components. Two buttons “EN” and “BOOT” surround the micro USB port. There is a chip to handle USB serial translation, and an AMS1117-3.3 handles voltage regulation. I think I see a second LED which was absent from Espressif’s reference design but present in a few other dev kits I’ve used. But I also see one oddball: it appears a capacitor next to the EN button is at an unusual angle. When I see a surface mount component at a non-orthogonal angle, my first thought is a pick-and-place or soldering error. But this capacitor seems to be bridging two real pads and not dangling off into space, so it’s probably not an error. It might be some sort of a hack to address some problem discovered after the rest of the board was laid out, I’m not sure. As long as the module works I guess it really doesn’t matter. As a test I flashed my ESP32 test program and saw the second LED start blinking. Good enough to get to work.


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Initial Thoughts on Micro Sawppy Rover Battery Power

Wiring up all the motorized components on my cardboard rover testbed exposed a few minor problems that were easily fixed, but exposed battery power as a headache I’ll have to deal with. Sawppy Rover V1 and Micro Sawppy Beta 1 both used lithium-polymer battery packs from the world of remote-control hobbies. They are lightweight and powerful, but they are also sensitive to mechanical damage and occasionally react very badly to abuse. I have ambition to make Micro Sawppy a small beginner-friendly rover design, so I didn’t want people to be intimidated by all the dire warning surrounding proper LiPo care and feeding. Also, while lithium battery costs have dramatically dropped over the past years, they are still relatively expensive and I wanted to keep Micro Sawppy affordable.

Which was why for my cardboard rover testbed, I started with a pack of four AA alkaline batteries. Alkaline AAs are common, inexpensive, and tolerant of abuse. Four of them in series deliver a maximum of six volts, aligning with the maximum rated voltage for TT gearmotors and SG90 servos I used on Micro Sawppy. Which is why a four-pack of AA is a very popular way to power small robot kits using those components. The difference is that they usually only have a pair of TT gearmotors, whereas Micro Sawppy has six. They also have fewer than four SG90 micro servos like those handling corner steering here. With all of these components, my cardboard rover has proved to be too much work for four AAs. Dragging its output voltage below four volts and triggering a brownout reset of the ESP32 brain.

My next idea on a way out of this predicament is to use a commodity USB power bank. They produce nominal 5V for charging USB devices. They are usually built around lithium batteries, but they are a self-enclosed device with a durable shell and protective circuitry. Making them a beginner-friendly safe way to incorporate lithium battery power. Officially USB1 only allowed devices to draw half an amp at five volts, which is not nearly enough for a rover. But newer USB power banks advertise higher power levels, some of them communicate using a secret handshake to indicate this capability. I had a few different power banks on hand, advertising maximum output of up to 2A. Unfortunately none of those were able to sustain power delivery for my cardboard box rover, either.

All of these power sources advertised power ranging from 5V but none of them could sustain that under the load of Micro Sawppy motors. I then returned to the idea of using alkaline AA batteries and thought… what if I added one battery, for five AA batteries in series? The answer is: some micro servos get very unhappy and quit.

Cardboard Rover Testbed Wheels Turning And Steering

Once I figured out how to handle power for ESP32 on my cardboard box rover testbed, I started connecting the rest of the components. Since I had motor control PWM code ready to go, I started by connecting the DRV8833 breakout boards one by one to the power rail. Which for this experiment was a battery holder for four AA alkaline batteries that had a power switch built in. (*)

I wanted to start with 4 AAs because alkaline batteries are commonplace and more importantly, tolerant of abuse compared to sensitive lithium ion batteries. I’m not squeamish about working with lithium battery packs personally, but I am squeamish about using them on a rover design I want to advertise as beginner-friendly. Four fresh AA batteries in series would deliver 6V, which is coincidentally the maximum spec voltage for both SG90 micro servos and TT gearmotors. Thus a four-pack of AA is a common power supply for little robot kits using similar components.

Here I am thankful for the LED indicating power supply, which was not part of the DRV8833 data sheet but added as a bonus on the particular breakout boards I had bought. Each module was powered-on to verify the power LED illuminated, then I turned it off to install one wheel. After I turned it back on to verify one wheel is working correctly, I would turn it off and connect the other wheel for verification. Testing parts one step at a time ensured that whenever something went wrong (and they did) I would know where to start looking.

As I connected more motors, I noticed that the DRV8833 power LED would visibly dim when the wheels start turning. To monitor voltage, I wired in a compact voltmeter(*) originally purchased to monitor battery voltage on Sawppy V1. I saw the voltage would sag from nearly 6V to just under 5V. More of a drop than I had expected, but with all six wheel drive motors in place I thought I was in good shape. It turned out I severely underestimated the peak power draw for four corner steering SG90 micro servos. When those little servos are trying to reach a new position ASAP, they seemed to draw more than the TT gear boxes despite their physically smaller motors. During regular operation my four-pack of AA would struggle to stay above 4V, and if the steering servo encounters any obstruction, it would drop below 4V causing the ESP32 to brown out and reset. This is obviously Not Good and I will need to put more thinking into power supply.


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Cardboard Box Rover Testbed ESP32 Power Supply

Power distribution is a concern in any electronics project, but a breadboard ESP32 circuit mounted on a cardboard box rover stand-in has an additional twist: USB. When a USB cable is plugged in to my ESP32 dev kit to upload new firmware and serial monitoring, it is also connected to the computer’s +5V power rail. But when my rover is out and about on its own, that USB connection will be absent and ESP32 will have to draw power from the onboard battery.

I initially thought I would have to install a 5-volt regulator on my rover to power the ESP32, much as how I had been using MP1584 buck converters to power Raspberry Pi 3 for earlier projects such as Sawppy V1. Then I remembered the ESP32 is a 3.3V part so there must already be a voltage regulator of some sort on the dev kit. Looking on the board and confirmed on the schematic, there is a AMS1117-3.3 LDO (low drop-out) regulator on duty. These regulators are happy to accept voltage up to 15V and down to as low as 1.3V over the output voltage, which in this case is 3.3 + 1.3 = 4.6V.

Looking over the schematic that HiLetgo bundled with this ESP32 dev kit, I see the onboard USB serial interface chip also runs on the 3.3V regulator output. Another thing this “Vin” pin is connected directly to is the power LED, which has a 1k current-limiting resistor so it can tolerate higher than 5V of input.

So that leaves the USB cable’s +5V line. If I have battery power voltage on that VIN pin, I don’t want that voltage to feed into my computer’s USB port. I need to make sure this ESP32 can connect to USB or battery power but never both at the same time. My solution is to use a length of solid-core wire to bridge battery power input to the Vin pin, and shaping the wire so it blocks the USB port. This way, I can’t connect this wire while the USB plug is in use.

In order to use USB power, I have to disconnect the VIN wire and swing it out of the way like a gate. In order to make sure that battery voltage wire doesn’t touch anything inconvenient while it is out of the way, I stabbed the exposed solid core wire into cardboard to tie up that literal loose end.

None of the remaining components on the rover testbed will need to receive software updates over USB, so this is the only place where I had to worry about switching between two power sources. Everything else will be wired directly to battery power.

Cardboard Box Rover Testbed Breadboard

Writing down ESP32 pin assignments in a spreadsheet is a good to plan things out ahead of time, but it isn’t a robot until wires are connected and circuits completed. I’ll test the plan on my cardboard box rover testbed. When I cut out the holes for all those motors and servos, I left a space open in the middle for circuitry. Since this is a testbed to prove out a plan, I want the flexibility to easily test things incrementally as I build things piece by piece. It would also be nice to easily fix problems I will undoubtedly discover during testing. Both of these desires pointed to a breadboard and jumper wire instead of a more permanent soldered solution.

In my collection of ESP32 development kits, there is a very important differentiation for this task: some of these modules are 0.1″ wider than the others. This difference is critically important for a breadboard prototype: the narrower modules leave one breadboard hole exposed on either side for jumper wiring, in contrast the wider module would completely block all holes on one side. To use wider modules on a breadboard, all the wires have to run underneath the module making them much less experimentation-friendly than their thinner counterparts. For this particular project I’m using an ESP32 dev module I purchased from this Amazon link (*) but there’s no guarantee the vendor wouldn’t change things up in the future.

One problem with the narrower module is that its compact layout left no space for labels on the visible side of the board. Rather than laboriously looking up charts and counting pins every time a wire connection is to be made, some clever people have designed paper templates to help with the task. I found one that matched my ESP32 dev kit at this link. Checking against my dev kit’s schematic, I see it is functionally correct though there is an inconsequential cosmetic typo of GIOP instead of GPIO. Printing out the PDF at 100% scale will match size with the real thing, which I then put between the breadboard and my ESP32 as I pushed the ESP32 dev kit in to the breadboard. Metal pins have no problem punching through that paper, and the paper is not conductive enough to cause problems with the circuit.

Having a pinout reference immediately available cuts down on frustration and mistakes, and I liked the idea so much I wanted them for my DRV8833 breakout boards as well. Because those breakout boards also had visible pin labels on their downward-facing side of the board. I didn’t have the skill to draw up a nice template using graphics design software, but using a sheet of paper I could create a hand-written reference.


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Assigning Pins for Sawppy Rover ESP32

As part of exploring MCPWM duty cycles, I had to make decisions on ESP32 pin assignments. This is how my ESP32 DevKit will communicate with my DC motor driver and steering servos. Three DRV8833 motor driver IC breakout boards for Micro Sawppy rover’s six TT gear motors driving wheels, plus four corner steering servos. Together they require sixteen PWM pins which is within an ESP32’s capability.

I’m very thankful for this compilation of ESP32 pinout from Random Nerd Tutorials, which served as a starting point and immediately crossed off many off-limit pins like those tied to ESP32 flash memory access. I also eliminated the primary serial transmit & receive pins from consideration as I wanted to keep them available for serial monitoring.

The next pins I wanted to keep clear were the two hardware I2C pins. I want to be build a baseline ESP32-controlled rover with as few external support chips as possible. But if I can leave the I2C pins free, that leaves the door open for add-ons and expansions. Additional PWM pins can be added with something like the popular PCA9685 chip. (*) And additional digital input/output pins can be added via PCF8574 (*) or similar chips. In fact, if I get to a point where I desire specific ESP32 peripherals (capacitive touch?) I can offload all wheel driving and steering duties to an external PWM chip.

I wanted to leave hardware SPI pins open for the same reason, but SPI was a luxury I could not afford. That would mean leaving four more pins unused and that’s more than I can spare for my baseline design. If SPI becomes important, I’ll need to offload some wheel control to external PWM chips. Another luxury I had to leave behind are the JTAG debug pins, which also demanded four pins I could not spare unless I offload PWM to external components.

But even though I could use those JTAG pins for general output, some care had to be taken because there will be some spurious signals on those pins. Upon power-up, before my code can run to configure those pins for PWM output, these pins will have signals corresponding to JTAG or other system use. In practice I expect this to mean my rover will twitch a little bit at startup, so I assigned those pins to steering servo signal duty. I rather that my rover steering servo twitch on powerup instead of a drive wheel. I don’t want the rover to drive itself forward or back uncontrolled, no matter how briefly.

After all of the above concerns are factored in, the final one is the physical relationship of pins. I wanted to keep related pins close together, such as the A and B lines for motor control. This is a little tricky to do on the Random Nerd Tutorials chart, because it is sorted by GPIO number instead of their physical position. I used Excel to create a chart that maps the physical location of those pins. Then I assigned their use so they roughly correlate to their positions on the rover, with the DevKit USB port pointing towards back. In reality the wiring won’t be that straightforward because the motor control lines will have to go through a DRV8833 first, but it might help me during debugging.

The assignments are listed on the outer-most columns of the chart. The first letter is one of (F)ront, (M)id, or (B)ack. The second letter is (L)eft or (R)ight. The third letter is (A) and (B) for DRV8833 motor control, or (S) for steering servo. This particular set of assignments leaves the I2C SDA & SCL pins free. Unencumbered GPIO23 is left free and clear for anything. The four input-only pins 34, 35, 36, and 39 are still available. And as a last resort, we still have the restricted-use GPIO0 pin. With this plan for pin assignments in hand, I proceed to turn the plan into reality.


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Interactive MCPWM Duty Cycle Explorer

I started exploring TT gearmotor response to different duty cycles by editing MCPWM parameters in source code, compile with those new parameters, and uploading the results to my ESP32 motor control test bench board. It took only three cycles of this process before it was painfully clear I needed a better way. So I copied an excerpt (the joystick and MCPWM portions) of my ESP32 Sawppy control software out to a separate test program in order to interactively explore TT gearbox behavior under different duty cycles.

This test program only dynamically varies the duty cycle, not the PWM frequency. I’m running my program at a PWM frequency of 20 kHz. There may be an annoying whine audible to dogs and newborns, but it’s comfortably above my not-spring-chicken range of hearing. A brief test established that these TT gear motors behave differently at lower PWM frequencies. The most consequential effect is that I could turn them at a lower minimum speed. Still not rock-climbing slow, but there’s definitely an effect. I don’t have enough electrical engineering background to understand why I have more torque with lower PWM frequency, so I’ll have to come back to this topic later to find an explanation for my observation. In the meantime I’m insistent on 20 kHz PWM because I don’t like to hear the whining.

In my test program I didn’t have a real need for analog control, so the joystick was effectively turned into a direction pad. Pushing one direction increments duty cycle, pushing the opposite decrements it. The orthogonal axis adjusts the increment rate, so I can adjust in duty cycle increments of 10%, 1%, and 0.1%. In order to test startup power, I could press down on the stick to trigger its associated button. This button toggles motor power on and off. This program is only useful when connected to serial monitor because the increment rate and the current duty cycle are displayed via text sent over serial link. I plan to use this tool again once Micro Sawppy is rolling on its own wheels, in order to update speed-to-duty cycle mapping to reflect realistic loads on the wheels rather than unloaded spinning in the air.

In theory it should be possible to have this tool as a part of Sawppy ESP32 control code instead of a separate project. I would have to set up some sort of conditional compilation mechanism so I could toggle whether to compile standard Sawppy control or this duty cycle explorer. However, I don’t see any particular motivation to perform this work today so until I see a benefit, I’ll leave that integration task on the to-do list for the future. With some working PWM duty cycles in hand I can start putting them to work with ESP32 GPIO pin assignments.


[ This test program is publicly available on GitHub. ]

Exploring TT Gear Motor Speed Range

I wrote my ESP32 Sawppy rover chassis Ackermann geometry code to output calculated wheel speeds and steering angles in an implementation-neutral (but not similar to ros_control) way. Wheel speeds were specified in meters per second of desired ground travel speed, so the next step is to translate that into DRV8833 MCPWM control signals driving TT gear motors.

This conversion will be some kind of mapping from desired wheel travel velocity to PWM duty cycle. Without closed-loop control, I knew the mapping would not be accurate, but maybe it’ll close enough to be acceptable at this price point. I’m not sure how much of a load will be borne by each rover wheel yet, so the first draft of this mapping will work with the wheels spinning freely in air without load. Since a single DRV8833 can drive two motors, I drove a pair of TT gearmotors with the same electrical PWM parameters. I was not surprised to find that they had slightly different speeds. It’s not even a consistent ratio: one motor was faster at full power, while the other was faster at low power. Looks like the error bars on my mapping are getting longer and longer with each discovery!

For the sake of getting some numbers as a starting point, I estimated unloaded wheel travel speed at 6V to be approximately 0.6 m/sec. With this, I’m cautiously optimistic that Micro Sawppy rovers running on TT gear motors will be able to keep up with Sawppy V1 with its much larger diameter wheels. However, they won’t have the same performance at the low end. Unloaded, these TT gearmotors could turn as low as 15cm/sec, but just barely. Any slower than that and the motor couldn’t overcome internal gearbox friction. Such behavior implies these little rovers wouldn’t be much good for low speed rock climbing. This initial experiment found that TT gearmotors maximum speed isn’t very fast, and their minimum speed isn’t very slow. But it’s still an open question whether they are “good enough” for the sake of making an affordable micro Sawppy rover. I already know I need to revisit this speed range exploration once the rover is running on its wheels, so I wrote a tool to make that process less painful.

Abandoning ros_control Analogy for Micro Sawppy

Every time I revisit the task of writing Sawppy rover control code, I’m optimistic that I’m one step closer to not having to rewrite from scratch again. This time around, I’m following conventions set by decade-long development of ROS (Robot Operating System) but writing in low-level C code that should run on anything from embedded microcontrollers on up. This approach adds a few challenges but I hope it’ll be more adaptable to other platforms (both software and hardware) in the future.

On the hardware front, many robot chassis that advertise ROS compatibility uses the velocity command (cmd_vel) topic as their interface layer to ROS autonomy logic nodes. Hardware-specific code listens to messages sent to that topic, and handle translating desired velocity into physical movement. I will follow that precedent but I also had the ambition to go one step further with some inspiration from ros_control. The key word is “had”, past tense.

As I understand it, ros_control original motivation was to interface with components that one would find on a robot arm, creating a generic interface for motors and actuators. This allows for generalized operation with ROS nodes like the MoveIt framework for motion planning, and it is also the interface layer for switching between real and virtual robots for the Ignition Gazebo simulator. And since it’s generic, it’s perfectly valid to try to apply those concept to motors and actuators for chassis locomotion.

I like the concept, but I got lost when wading into documentation. When I dug into one of the actual interfaces like JointPositionController, I saw only a setCommand() that sends a single double-precision floating point value. This is clearly only part of the picture. What is the context that number? For actuators like RC servo it would be a rotation, but for a linear actuator it would be a distance. How would I communicate that information, along with other context like whether that rotation/distance is along X, Y, or Z axis?

Furthermore, the interface assumes closed-loop control on every actuator, since the interface has getPosition() to query status and setGains() to adjust PID coefficients. I wouldn’t be able to offer any of that on a micro Sawppy rover. RC servos do perform closed-loop control, but the loop is closed within the servo and the robot has no visibility to actual position or adjust PID coefficients. And without an encoder wheel, TT gear motors have no closed loop control at all. Some ROS tutorials (like this one) asserted there’s no point to ros_control on low-end robots and I now understand their point.

Since I don’t understand concepts of ros_control yet, I’ve chosen to postpone that idea for ESP32 Micro Sawppy software. The worst downside is that I might go down a path that will require another rewrite in the future. But hey, I’ve done it before and I can do it again. To mitigate this risk, I’ll still communicate my rover actuator commands using unit conventions as described by REP103. So I’ll communicate steering angles using radians instead of RC servo commands, which should be friendlier to conversion to different actuators in the future. Similarly, wheel speed will be communicated in meters per second rather than motor power level, again in the hopes it’ll be generic enough for other actuators in the future. Today I’ll pack them into a single message for short term ease and deal with that problem later. I have a more immediate problem: I found the TT gearboxes have a narrower range of speed than I originally thought.

Revisiting Sawppy Geometry Jupyter Notebook

My decision to follow ROS conventions for my Micro Sawppy rover control software also meant taking on some of the challenges of adapting manual control conventions to an automation-centric world. I remain optimistic that this short term pain will prove worthwhile long term, but it’ll be some time before I know for sure.

I chose an ESP32 as my rover brain, thanks to its feature set being a good match for my ambition to design a low-cost entry-level rover. The cost-cutting decision to move hardware from Raspberry Pi to ESP32 has a big impact on the software environment. From Python running on a general purpose Linux-based operating system to C running on a bare-bones FreeRTOS environment optimized for embedded systems. While I’ve written a C version for Sawppy’s alternate Arduino control scheme, I couldn’t port my old code straight across due to my new ROS-centric focus.

This is far from the first attempt at a ROS-friendly Sawppy rover code base. I tried to do it once myself before aborting that effort due to unneeded duplication. I looked at Rhys Mainwaring’s rover software stack for ROS Melodic to see if I could adapt it to Micro Sawppy’s ESP32. Logic-wise, it follows all the ROS conventions I wanted to follow, but it also used all the ROS software frameworks I won’t have on an ESP32. I also wanted more abstraction between rover chassis math and actuator code. In ROS this is the job of ros_control which Rhys plans to adopt, but that is part of the ROS infrastructure I won’t have on bare ESP32 FreeRTOS.

So I went back to something I created as part of my aborted effort: a Jupyter notebook for working through my rover math. Jupyter has since evolved into JupyterLab but it didn’t seem to have any problem opening up my old notebook. Thanks to all the markdown documentation I had written alongside my Python code in the Jupyter notebook, I could quickly get back up to speed on my thinking on the project. Reviewing my code months later, I even found and fixed a bug that slipped through earlier! I’m not sure this is the most elegant fix, my Python code is not very “Pythonic” because I still think like a C programmer. It is technically a bug, but today it is a feature because I’m porting it to C that will compile for ESP32. My plan was to build a FreeRTOS task that takes a desired rover chassis movement command similar to a ROS cmd_vel message, and outputs data similar to a ros_control message… but then my plan changed.

Joystick Range Check Works Around ESP32 ADC Mystery

One of the things I knew I wanted to do for my Micro Sawppy rover’s ESP32 brain was an option for wired analog joystick input. This proved useful for Sawppy V1 and I wanted it for Micro Sawppy as well. Not just as a backup control method, but as the first test in my hypothesis that I will benefit from following ROS precedents for generic messages. In addition to the evergreen ambition to give Sawppy autonomy, I want to support the following manual input control mechanisms:

  • Wired analog joystick for noisy wireless signal environments.
  • Web-based control similar to what I created for SGVHAK rover and adapted to Sawppy.
  • Bluetooth based control to connect with devices like the BBC micro:bit.
  • ROS2 joystick control message via micro-ROS.

If I have a generic message type resembling ROS joystick message, each of these input methods can theoretically be isolated in their own FreeRTOS tasks. They all post the same message type to the same message queue, so the rest of Micro Sawppy doesn’t have to care about where their input came from. Swapping input was something very difficult to do on SGVHAK rover software and I want to do improve this time around.

So as a starting point I wanted to take my quick hack of ADC joystick support in my FreeRTOS play project and rewrite it to be something suitably robust for Micro Sawppy. Since it was a quick hack, there were a few weird things that happened but I chose not to worry about it at the time. Thinking I’ll sit down and figure it out later. It is later and… I failed to figure it out. But I did devise a workaround so I can continue with the project. I’ll come back and update this paragraph if I figure it out later.

The issue center around ESP32’s ADC (analog-to-digital converter) peripheral. I had been familiar with ADC peripheral on a Arduino’s ATmega328, which can read values in a range from 0V to +5V via analogRead(). The ADC on a PIC16F18345 works in a similar manner. The ESP32 is a 3.3V chip so I had expected its ADC to read the range from 0V to +3.3V but I was wrong. By default it only reads from 0V to 0.8V. We can configure a signal attenuator to increase range of ADC sensitivity, but even at maximum attenuation it only claims to read from 0V to 2.6V.

This presents an issue with analog joystick inputs, which are electrically potentiometers that feed a voltage value somewhere between its input max voltage and ground. Wiring such a device up to the ESP32’s 3.3V supply means we’ll lose the ability to read the high end of the joystick corresponding to the range between ADC maximum of 2.6V and 3.3V. It also means the joystick’s center position will return about 1.65V which is higher than midway between 0V and 2.6V. So I had expected ADC readings to be higher than what I would expect.

The reality was just the opposite, they were lower instead. I configured the ADC for 9-bits resolution, so the values are anywhere from 0 to 511. Midway would be 256, but joystick center actually correlated to ~220. And even though I expect to hit maximum value partway through the high range of joystick motion, I never got there. Maximum value never exceeded ~460. I used a voltmeter to measure the input and confirmed +3.3V, but the reading wasn’t close to the actual maximum value of 511. Several rounds of fiddling with configuration flags did not change this result.

So as a workaround, my new joystick code does a range check upon powerup. It assumes the joystick is centered at powerup (hopefully reasonable assumption when they are spring loaded) and waits for me to move each axis through its minimum and maximum values and press the button. Before that first button press, my code tracks the highest and lowest values seen, which are used to normalize joystick message output to the range from -1 to +1 that is used in ROS joystick message. I’m using some very inexpensive joysticks whose potentiometers drift significantly, so maybe a range check is a good idea anyway. Either way it’s good enough for me to move on.

Goals and Challenges for Sawppy ESP32 Software

With a cardboard rover test platform ready to go, I’ve run out of excuses to put off the software portion of micro Sawppy rover work. If my little rover is going to come alive, the software work must be done. This task shouldn’t be as intimidating as it feels, because this is my second round through writing rover brain code. I have learned some lessons from writing SGVHAK rover code running on a Raspberry Pi (code which I then adapted to Sawppy) and those lessons should help me this time on the ESP32.

One goal for my new ESP32 project is to be more ROS-friendly. I’m not ready to dive straight into micro-ROS right now. But when I (or someone else) tackles the challenge, the project shouldn’t be tripped up by something that needlessly complicates the task. I wrote SGVHAK rover code before I knew much about ROS, and in hindsight I made some decisions that made a ROS port annoying for no good reason. For example, the ROS convention for robot forward is along the +X axis. Ignorant of this when I wrote SGVHAK rover software, I chose forward to be +Y axis. The ROS convention for angular measurements are radians for units, and the right-hand rule for positive rotation. Meaning a positive rover steering rotation is counter-clockwise. For SGVHAK rover, I worked with angles in degrees and positive rotation was clockwise. There was no reason to go against these ROS conventions, it was done purely out of ignorance. If I were to adapt my SGVHAK rover code to ROS, a whole bunch of conversions need to occur risking additional surface area for bugs. I completely understand why Rhys Mainwaring wrote a rover ROS software stack from scratch instead, I would have done the same!

So for my upcoming ESP32 Sawppy rover brain project, I’ll keep ROS conventions in mind. Specifically REP103 for units and coordinate conventions. Another ROS-inspired similarity will be messages, which is a new luxury gained by the change in platform. For SGVHAK rover I avoided the complications of introducing multiprocessing concepts to Python code running on a Raspberry Pi. But now I’m targeting the customized FreeRTOS Espressif created to run an ESP32, I gain a lot of multiprocessing tools as a natural and fundamental part of the platform. I will be organizing my code components into FreeRTOS tasks, which has similarities to how ROS organizes code components into nodes. So when my tasks communicate with each other, I’ll look to see if there is a ROS equivalent. I won’t be able to make my FreeRTOS messages compatible with ROS message formats, though. Because I won’t have some of the luxuries like dynamically sized arrays. But the data organization should at least look similar.

I foresee the following items, and I’ll probably find more as I go:

  • I will rewrite my ESP32 ADC joystick code to communicate with a new data message. It should resemble sensor_msgs/Joy from ROS, normalized to the same value ranges.
  • When I write the task which translates raw input into desired rover chassis command, that result will be communicated with something that resembles geometry_msgs/Twist used for ROS topic cmd_vel (Commanded Velocity).
  • When that cmd_vel command is broken down to commands for individual motors and actuators, those individual commands should resemble joint commands of ros_control. I have not yet worked with ros_control myself so this one is the fuzziest with the most unknowns. But I look forward to learning!

And as expected of a learning project, I ran into problems immediately with the first item on the list. I eventually decided to devise a workaround for ESP32 ADC behavior I don’t understand yet.

Test Driving DRV8833 With ESP32 MCPWM

It was time well spent to study my batch of commodity breakout boards for the DRV8833 DC motor driver IC. It reinforced that I should not take random instructions downloaded online at face value, even though in this case the errors wouldn’t have been relevant to my planned usage. Armed with confidence I understand how to use the board I have on hand, I proceed to the next step: verify I could write code to control one with an ESP32 and its MCPWM peripheral.

My self-education FreeRTOS project was created with this future in mind when I started by controlling a L298 DC motor driver IC. The first exercise used the control scheme utilizing three pins per motor (two digital for state, one PWM pin for magnitude) which is compatible with the TB6612 but not DRV8833. The beauty of FreeRTOS was that I was able to isolate code specific to this control scheme in its own FreeRTOS task. In theory, all I would need to do is to write another task with DRV8833’s control scheme (a pair of PWM pins per motor) and swap out the motor driver control task. The remainder of my test program, from the joystick ADC to the heartbeat status LED, would remain untouched and blissfully unaware I’ve switched my motor control task.

I’m happy to report theory matched practice this time! The problem I encountered was unrelated to FreeRTOS. It was really easy to get one motor up and running but I was tripped up by my misinterpretation of Espressif documentation when trying to run two motors simultaneously at different speeds. Each MCPWM unit on a ESP32 can control three motors, and each MCPWM unit had three timers. The quote from Espressif documentation that I misunderstood was:

Each A/B pair may be clocked by any one of the three timers Timer 0, 1 and 2. The same timer may be used to clock more than one pair of PWM outputs.

I tried to run two pairs of PWM outputs (one pair per motor) with the same timer, which is explicitly allowed by the documentation and generated no compiler or runtime errors. However, the fact that it is possible and allowed doesn’t mean it actually does what I want. By using the same timer, I had also locked those motors to the same speed. Different speeds require separate timers. Which is why MCPWM offers up to three timers so we can run each motor at a different speed. Once I realized my mistake and understood what was going on, it was an easy fix to get both motors up and running each with their own timer. With both motors running on my existing cardboard testbed, I thought it was time to upgrade to a fancier (but still cardboard) testbed.


This coding practice project is publicly available on GitHub.

ESP32 FreeRTOS Practice Project Controls L298

After deciding I should learn to use FreeRTOS as part of my ESP32 projects toolbox, I read through the free e-Book PDF. I don’t understand all of it yet, but it built a foundation. Enough for me to start a practice project using some basic FreeRTOS features. What’s the first thing I did? What we always do in embedded hardware: blink a LED!

I’ve used this particular ESP32, mounted on this pink breadboard, for several projects. I had a few external LEDs configured on this pink breadboard for experimentation, and that was because I somehow never noticed that there was a second LED available for direct use on my ESP32 dev module. I knew there was a red one to indicate power, but I didn’t notice the blue one until this project. Apparently this particular ESP32 development board (*) is not a direct clone of Espressif’s official ESP32 DevKitC, because that had only one red LED to indicate power. I have no idea how popular this particular two-LED layout is among ESP32 development boards, I’ll have to keep an eye out as I buy more.

Anyway, this board has a blue LED wired to GPIO2, who still got routed to the same pin as the Espressif module. The LED is wired in parallel and should not interfere with using that pin as output. Though it might affect the signal if I use it as input. I spun up a FreeRTOS task purely for the task of blinking the LED at regular intervals, just to verify I could. My first effort put the ESP32 in an infinite reset loop, and I eventually figured out it was caused by insufficient memory allocated to task stack. I was very surprised that a simple LED blinker needed more than one kilobyte of stack, but it’s not the most important thing right now so I’ll look into it later.

After I successfully created a FreeRTOS task and see it running blinking the onboard blue LED, I proceeded to set up my first message queue. Queues are the simplest way for FreeRTOS tasks to pass data to each other. I copied code from my earlier ADC experiment to read position of an analog joystick, and queued the joystick position message for retrieval by another task. First run of the reader task simply dequeued the joystick position and printed to serial terminal, but that was enough to verify I had the queue running correctly.

With those basic pieces established, I then wrote two more tasks. One reads the joystick position and puts motor control commands into yet another queue, and finally a task that reads motor control commands and adjusts MCPWM control signal for the L298N motor driver accordingly.

This exercise was a good test run to verify I could get the advantages I hoped to get by adopting FreeRTOS.

  • By writing individual subareas as tasks, I could test them individually. In this case, I could smoke test the ADC task by writing another task to read the data it queued.
  • Each task could be in charge of its own ESP32 configuration. ADC configuration is handled by the joystick reading task, separate from the other tasks. And likewise MCPWM configuration is handled by the L298N output task.
  • Tasks are run independently from each other, and more importantly, can be modified independently. I found the blue LED was obnoxiously bright and went into my LED blinking task to reduce the on time to a brief flash and extend the time between flashes, and doing so did not affect timing of other tasks. Reading the joystick and sending motor control signals do not necessarily have to run in sync, I could update motor speed more often than reading the joystick, which would be useful if I wanted to add motor acceleration logic.

That last item is especially important. If I learn enough to design my interfaces (FreeRTOS queues) right, I could swap out FreeRTOS tasks without worrying that I would interfere with other tasks. I want this design to scale from micro Sawppy to regular size Sawppy V2 by swapping out different modules written for different motor controllers. By similar token, it should be easier to do quick hacks like swap out a single steering motor as SGVHAK rover had to do. I also want different control input options, from simple wired joystick to web UI to ROS messages, each of which would be a different task module but they could all use the same message queue format to communicate with the rest of the rover.

Knowing how to set up FreeRTOS tasks and queues aren’t nearly the whole picture of using FreeRTOS, but it gave me a good introduction and built confidence for continuing forward. And as a side effect of this software project, I also made a valuable non-software discovery: cardboard backing for electronics prototypes.

[Source code for this project is publicly available on GitHub]


(*) Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.