Advancing Robotics: The Role of Motor Drives and Controls

Kevin Parmenter, Director, Applications Engineering. TSC, America



Kevin Parmenter, Director, Applications Engineering. TSC, America

­In the ever-evolving landscape of robotics, the areas of motor drives and controls are the two indispensable pillars driving progress towards “Industry 4.0.” A recent report from Siemens valued the global robotics, motor drives and controls market size at nearly 13 billion $US in 2022 with expectations to expand at a CAGR of 22.44%, reaching over 41 billion $US by 2028. This industry incorporates industrial electronics, motor drives, software, sensors, controls and robotic systems used in manufacturing plants, automated warehouses, healthcare, industrial process control and more.

At the core of every robotic system, motor drives and controls convert electrical energy into mechanical energy. Motor drives and controls – plus sensors – are essential for empowering machines with agility, precision, and adaptability.

Motor drives come in various types, including DC motors, AC motors, stepper motors and servo motors, and each cater to specific applications with varying speed, torque, and precision requirements. A recent trend is to incorporate electronic sensors inside the actuators themselves to give precise closed-loop feedback to the control systems. These systems often use encoders and sensors to provide real-time feedback, ensuring accurate positioning, time of flight and trajectory tracking. This level of precision is paramount in applications requiring delicate manipulation, such as surgical robotics or electronic assembly equipment.

Complementing motor drives, the overall control systems orchestrate robotic motion. Control algorithms dictate the behavior of robotic actuators, optimizing performance while adapting to changing environments. Whether it's PID (Proportional-Integral-Derivative) controllers for maintaining stability or advanced predictive algorithms for the time of flight - trajectory planning, controls govern every aspect of robotic motion. These can be custom designed or incorporate off-the-shelf PLDs (Programmable Logic Controllers).

The fusion of motor drives and controls has unlocked a myriad of applications across various industries. In manufacturing automation and logistics and warehousing systems, for instance, autonomous mobile robots navigate complex warehouse environments. In the healthcare industry, there are surgical and service robotics, including human-robot collaboration, or COBOTs.

As technology continues to advance, the interaction between motor drives, controls, and robotics will drive unprecedented innovation. AI and machine learning will further augment the capabilities of robotic systems, enabling autonomous decision-making and adaptive behavior.

Driving all this is power electronics technologies. Power electronics are critical for all aspects of these designs from the AC-DC motor drives, low-noise power rails for the sensors, power for servo valves and actuators, hydraulic, pneumatic or electrical actuators, obstacle detection and more. These systems must be reliable since they are typically used in hostile and electrically noisy environments where line transients, ESD events and surges are present. Often these systems are mission critical; for example, medical surgical robots must incorporate safety systems such as UPS backup because failure isn’t tolerable.

In the fourth industrial revolution, the interaction between these components will continue to propel robotics to new frontiers, transforming industries and creating many new opportunities for power electronics engineers.