Magnetic Encoders VS Optical Encoders

Enrique del Sol - Robotics, Mechatronics & Control Research

Encoders, whether rotary or linear, absolute or incremental, typically use one of two measuring principles—optical or magnetic. While optical encoders were, in the past, the primary choice for high resolution applications, improvements in magnetic encoder technology now allow them to achieve resolutions down to one micron, competing with optical technology in many applications. Magnetic technology is also, in many ways, more robust than optical technology, making magnetic encoders a popular choice in industrial environments.

Parameter Optical Sensor Characteristics Magnetic Hall Sensor Characteristics
Principle  coded disc/scale, through beam arrangement  magnet/tape/polewheel opposed to sensor
Incremental accuracy of target  100 nm – 1 μm

(lithography process)

 5 μm – 30 μm

(magnetisation process)

Energising by external LED (20 mW)  by target (Br>220 mT)
Signal Frequency  > 1 MHz possible  < 50 kHz
Benefits  high code density, high code accuracy  robust
Disadvantages  sensitive to contamination, high alignment requirements  raw code density, medium code…

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Chassis assembled

After 3D printing a few more plastic parts and cutting all the aluminium plates, the custom chassis is finally complete! Below are some quick notes on the progress over the last weeks.

More 3D printed parts and painting

I printed off some of the remaining parts of the chassis. The battery compartment was best printed upright with minimal support structure needed. The rear bumper was trickier than the front bumper, because of the additional hole space for the battery, so I found it was best to print upright, with a raft and curved supports at the bottom.

Once all parts were printed, and some more sanding, I spray-painted all the parts with plastic primer, then blue paint, and finally clear sealer.

Metal parts

I was initially thinking of finding an online service to cut out the aluminium chassis parts, but then decided it would be faster and cheaper to just get some sheets 1.5 mm thick aluminium sheets from eBay and cut them on a jigsaw table.
I used Fusion 360’s drawing tool to export to PDF the parts I needed to cut out: four chassis plates and four foot plates. I then printed them in actual scale and glued them on the aluminium to uses as traces.


I threaded the holes on all the 3D parts, which were either 3 mm wide where the aluminium plates attach, or 2 mm at the leg and spine bracket attachment points.
Using a tap for the 3 mm holes worked pretty well, but the 2 mm holes were more prone to being stripped or too loose, so manually threading the holes with the bolts worked better. Another issue was the infill surrounding the internal thread cylinder sometimes being a bit too thin. In retrospect, I’d try designing the 3D parts to use heat-set or expandable inserts, especially for the smaller threads.

The servo brackets attaching to the chassis have a large number of holes (16 for each leg and one of the spine brackets, and 12 for the other spine bracket) so the screws so far seem to secure the brackets well enough. The spine section is under a lot of stress from the wight of the whole chassis and legs, so it will not be able to withstand much twisting force, and the servos may not be strong enough at this area, but I will have to test this in practice with new walking gaits.


The custom chassis has finally made it from a 3D design to a reality, with relative success so far. Some of the threaded holes on the 3D parts are not as strong as I’d like, the AX-12 may be under-powered for the spine connection, and the brackets anchoring the spine may be the first to give way due to twisting forces. Also the chassis as a whole would benefit form weight-saving exercise and perhaps being thinned down. But this has only been the first iteration of the main chassis, and the robot design has now become a reality and seems to stand up well. The next step will see how it performs some of the basic walking gaits!


From paper to plastic

… or more correctly, from CAD to reality, as it is time for 3D printing!

I’ve recently got a new 3D printer in the form of a FlashForge Creator Pro 2017, which means I can start printing some of the structural components for the quadruped now, leaving the decorative pieces for later. In fact, some of them have already been printed, as you can see in the images below.

Chassis parts

All the parts were recently updated from their previous iteration slightly, by adding fillets around the edges, and decreasing nut hole diameters by 0.2 mm in order to provide some material for self-tapping threads. On the other hand, I increased the tolerance of some slots by the same amount, to allow a tolerance for their connection to interlocking plastic tabs.

The rear section has also been modified: the underside aluminium base will have a tab at 90° that connects to the rear, to provide more rigidity to the central connection with the spine servo bracket.

Here are the CAD models of the chassis parts:

Foot base

Front body assembly

Rear body assembly



All parts were printed in PLA plastic.

The first part I started with was the foot base. I printed it with a 20% honeycomb infill. I didn’t add any intermediate solid layers, but might do so in other parts. I have so far printed two out of the four bases.

Each leg will connect to a leg base bracket, which is the same design for all legs. The part was printed “upside-down” because of the orientation of the interlocking tabs. This meant that some support structure was needed for the holes. For the first print attempt I also added supports around the overhang of the filleted edge, along with a brim, but for the subsequent prints I didn’t bother with these, as the fillet overhang held fine without supports, and saved from extra filing/sanding down. These parts also used 20% infill.

For the front and rear “bumpers”, I reduced the infill to 10%.

For the larger part comprising of the central section of the front, the spine front bracket, I also used an infill of 10%. Due to the more complicated design that would have included many overhangs, I found it easier to cut the part lengthwise and print it as two separate pieces. These will be super-glued together after sanding.

Time-lapse GIFs and images of the printing process:


The parts so far

In terms of printing times, the foot bases and leg base brackets took about 3 hours each, the bumpers took around 4 hours each, and the two spine front bracket halves took about 7 hours combined, so total printing time is going to be fairly large!

The 0.2 mm clearance seems to work fine for self-threading the plastic with M2 size metal nuts, but was too large for some of the plastic-to-plastic interlocking tabs, possibly since this tolerance is close to the resolution limits of the printer (theoretically a 0.4 mm nozzle and 0.18 mm layer height). However after some filing and sanding down, all the plastic parts fit together nicely.

The resulting 3D prints before and after sanding:

The assembly so far

Finally, here are some images of how the chassis assembly is shaping up, as well as the foot bases shown attached to the foot metal brackets. These fitted snug without any sanding, and all the holes aligned perfectly with the metal brackets, which was reassuring!

The next step is to glue the front bracket halves together, and maybe spray paint all the parts, as they lose all their original shine and end up looking very scratched after sanding.


Four legs built – New videos and images

With the hardware for all four legs gathered, I have assembled the first standalone version of the quadruped. The MakerBeam XL aluminium profiles were adopted as before, to create a temporary chassis.

The fact that the robot can now stand on its four feet meant I could quickly give the walking gaits a test on the real hardware: The Python test software reads the up/down and forward/back position of each leg for a number of frames that make up a walking gait, the IK is solved, and the resulting joint values are streamed via serial over to the Arbotix-M, which simply updates the servo goal positions. No balancing or tweaking has been done whatsoever yet, which is why in the video I have to hold on to the back of the robot to prevent it from tipping backwards.

I took some time to make a video of the progress so far on this robot project:

A chance for some new photos:

Finally, here is an older video showing the Xbox One controller controlling the IK’s foot target position, and a simple serial program on the ArbotiX-M which receives the resulting position commands for each motor (try to overlook the bad video quality):

In the next stage I will start building the robot’s body, as per the CAD design, which is for the most part 3D printed parts and aluminium sheets, combined with the 2 DoF “spine” joints.

Body/spine and improved leg kinematics

The Python test program has been updated to include the additional spine joints, transformation between the robot and world coordinates, and leg targets which take orientation into account.

This test script is used in anticipation for controlling the actual robot’s servos.


Spine joints

The “spine” consists of two joints which will allow the front of the robot to pitch and yaw independently of the rear. This will give it more flexibility when turning and handling uneven terrain, as well as other tasks such as aiming its sensors at the world.

Since the spine joints are quite simple, I don’t think there is any need to create IK for this section.


Main Assembly v114 Spine

The “spine” joints separate the body of the quadruped between mostly similar front and rear sections.


Body and spine orientation

The robot body now takes into account that it has to be oriented w.r.t. the “world”. This will be physically achieved by the information acquired by an IMU sensor. If the robot is tilted forwards, the targets for the legs will have to be adjusted so that the robot maintains its balance.

I have defined the kinematics in a way that if the the robot was to rotate w.r.t. the world, the whole body rotates (this can be achieved by moving the test Roll/Pitch/Yaw sliders). However if the servo joints of the spine are moved (test joint 1 / joint 2 sliders) the rear section of the robot will move w.r.t the world, and the rear legs will move with it, while the front section won’t change w.r.t. the world.

In order to achieve this, the leg IK had to be updated so that now the base frames of the front legs are linked to the front section of the robot, and the base frames of the rear legs are linked to the rear section.

You might notice while orientation will be defined by an IMU, pure translation (movement in XYZ) in the world is not considered for now, as it is meaningless without some sort of localisation capability in place. This could be achieved by a sensor (see below), but is an entirely separate challenge for a long way down the line (hint: SLAM).

Quadbot 17 Quad Kinematics_004

New leg targets: Foot roll/pitch can be attained (within limits). In addition, the robot base can be positioned with respect to an outside world frame.

Quadbot 17 Quad Kinematics_002

Original leg targets: The feet are always pointing vertical to the ground.


Target roll and yaw

Initially, the leg target was simply a position in 3D for the foot link, and the foot was always pointing perpendicular to the ground, which made the inverse kinematics fairly easy. In version 2, the target orientation is now also taken into account. Actually, the pitch and roll can be targeted, but yawing cannot be obtained, simply because of the mechanics of the legs. Yawing, or turning, can be done by changing the walking gait pattern alone,  but the idea is that the spine bend will also aid in steering the robot (how exactly I don’t know yet, but that will come later!).

Getting the kinematics to work were a bit trickier than the original version, mainly because the “pitching” orientation of the leg can only be achieved by the positioning of joint 4, whereas the “rolling” orientation can only be achieved by the positioning of joint 5. The available workspace of the foot is also somewhat limited, in part due to that missing yaw capability. Particularly at positions when the leg has to stretch sideways (laterally) then certain roll/pitching combinations are impossible to reach. Nevertheless, this implementation gives the feet enough freedom to be placed on fairly uneven surfaces, and not be constrained to the previously flat plane.

The next challenge that follows from this, is how can realistic target positions and orientations be generated (beyond predetermined fixed walking gaits), to match what the robot sees of the world?

To answer this, first I need to decide how the robot sees the world: Primarily it will be by means of some 3D scanner, such as the ones I’ve looked into in the past, or maybe the Intel RealSense ZR300 which has recently caught my attention. But this alone might not be sufficient, and some form of contact sensors on the feet may be required.

The big question is, should I get a RealSense sensor for this robot ??? 🙂



Updated code can be found on GitHub (single-file test script is starting to get long, might be time to split up into class files!).



Second leg assembly and painting

With enough motors and brackets to build a second leg, the hardware build continues! I have spray-painted all the metal brackets to go with an all-blue colour scheme. The Robotis plastic brackets were hard to source online, so I got them printed by Shapeways.

I re-purposed the test rig frame used for the single leg to make a platform for the two legs. It’s made out of MakerBeam XL aluminium profiles which are very easy to change around and customise to any shape. This base will work well until I get the rest of the plastic parts 3D printed and the metal parts cut.

I also had enough parts and motors to assemble the 2-axis “spine”, but the main frame is not yet built so it that part is on the side for now.

Here are a few photos of the build:

In the next post I will concentrate on software updates to the leg and spine kinematics.