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EXPERIMENTING WITH TILT AND GRAVITY SENSORS
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35.2 Using an Accelerometer to Measure Tilt
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One of the most accurate, yet surprisingly low-cost, methods for tilt measurement involves an accelerometer. Once the province only of high-tech aviation and automotive testing labs, accelerometers are quickly becoming common staples in consumer electronics. It s quite possible, for example, that your late-model car contains at least one accelerometer if not as part of its collision safety system (such as an airbag), then perhaps as an integral part of its burglar alarm. Accelerometers are also increasingly used in laptop computers (used to put the laptop into a suspend mode with the hard drive parked, assuming that if the angle changes drastically, it has tipped off a table), high-end video game controllers, portable electric heaters, and in-home medical equipment. New techniques for manufacturing accelerometers have made them more sensitive and accurate yet also less expensive. A device that might have cost upwards of $500 a few years ago sells in quantity for under $10 today. The Analog Devices accelerometers discussed in the following sections are available through a number of retail outlets, and neither requires extensive external circuitry. While the text that follows is specific to the accelerometers from Analog Devices, you may substitute units from other sources after making the appropriate changes in the circuitry and computer interface software.
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35.2.1 WHAT IS AN ACCELEROMETER
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The basic accelerometer is a device that measures change in speed. Put an accelerometer in your car, for example, and step on the gas. The device will measure the increase in speed. Most accelerometers only measure acceleration (or deceleration) and not constant speed or velocity. Such is the case with the accelerometers detailed here. Though accelerometers are designed to measure changes in speed, many types of accelerometers including the ones detailed in the following sections are also sensitive to the constant pull of the earth s gravity. It is this latter capability that is of interest to us since it means you can use the accelerometer to measure the tilt, or attitude, of your robot at any given time. This tilt is represented by a change in the gravitational forces acting on the sensor. The output of the accelerometer is either a linear AC or DC voltage or, more handily, a digital pulse that changes in response to the acceleration or gravity forces. To measure the tilt of a robot, an accelerometer is placed parallel to the surface a robot runs on. When the robot is stopped on a level surface, the accelerometer will not detect any acceleration (due to gravity). When the robot is tilted, the acceleration due to gravity will be sensed by the accelerometer according to the formula: Tilt Acceleration Due to Gravity = 9.9 m/s2 sin (Tilt Angle) Note that when you try to measure the tilt angle of a robot from the acceleration an accelerometer measures, you will discover that it is impossible to measure unless the robot has stopped. While Newton s First Law of Motion implies that if the robot is moving constantly, then accelerometer measurements of tilt angle should be accurate, this is not the
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35.2 USING AN ACCELEROMETER TO MEASURE TILT
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case in the real world. Motor surges, vibration, and bumps in the surface make it impossible to get an accurate measurement of the tilt angle.
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35.2.2 ADDITIONAL USES FOR ACCELEROMETERS
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Before going into the details of using accelerometers for tilt and angle measurement in robots, here is a list of some of the different robotics-based sensor applications for these devices. Apart from sensing the angle of tilt, a gravity-sensitive accelerometer can also be used for the following tasks:
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Shock and vibration. If the robot bumps into something, the output of the accelerometer will spike instantaneously. Because the output of the accelerometer is proportional to the power of the impact, the harder the robot bumps into something, the larger the voltage spike. You can use this feature for collision detection, obviously, but in ways that far exceed what is possible with simple bumper switches since an accelerometer is sensitive to shock from most any direction. Motion detection. An accelerometer can detect motion even if the robot s wheels aren t moving. This might be useful for robots that must travel over uneven or unpredictable terrain. Should the robot move (or stop moving) when it s not supposed to, this will show up as a change in speed and will therefore be sensed by the accelerometer. Telerobotic control. You can use accelerometers mounted on your clothes to transmit your movements to a robot. For instance, accelerometers attached to your feet can detect the motion of your legs. This information could be transmitted (via radio or infrared link) to a legged robot, which could replicate those moves. Or you might construct an air stick wireless joystick, which would simply be a pipe with an accelerometer at the top or bottom and some kind of transmitter circuit. As you move the joystick your movements are sent to your robot, which acts in kind.
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