A servomechanism, or servo is an automatic device which uses error-sensing feedback to correct the performance of a mechanism. The term correctly applies only to systems where the feedback or error-correction signals help control mechanical position or other parameters. For example an automotive power window control is not a servomechanism, as there is no automatic feedback which controls position—the operator does this by observation. By contrast the car's cruise control uses closed loop feedback, which classifies it as a servomechanism.
Servomechanisms may or may not use a servomotor. For example a household furnace controlled by thermostat is a servomechanism, yet there is no closed-loop control of a servomotor.
A common type of servo provides position control. Servos are commonly electrical or partially electronic in nature, using an electric motor as the primary means of creating mechanical force. Other types of servos use hydraulics, pneumatics, or magnetic principles. Usually, servos operate on the principle of negative feedback, where the control input is compared to the actual position of the mechanical system as measured by some sort of transducer at the output. Any difference between the actual and wanted values (an "error signal") is amplified and used to drive the system in the direction necessary to reduce or eliminate the error. An entire science known as control theory has been developed on this type of system.
Servomechanisms were first used in military fire-control and marine navigation equipment. Today servomechanisms are used in automatic machine tools, satellite-tracking antennas, automatic navigation systems on boats and planes, and antiaircraft-gun control systems. Other examples are fly-by-wire systems in aircraft which use servos to actuate the aircraft's control surfaces, and radio-controlled models which use RC servos for the same purpose. Many autofocus cameras also use a servomechanism to accurately move the lens, and thus adjust the focus. A modern hard disk drive has a magnetic servo system with sub-micrometre positioning accuracy.
Another device commonly referred to as a servo is used in automobiles to amplify the steering or braking force applied by the driver. However, these devices are not true servos, but rather mechanical amplifiers. (See also Power steering or Vacuum servo.)
In industrial machines, servos are used to perform complex motion.
The first feedback position control device was the ship steering engine, used to position the rudder of large ships based on the position of ship's wheel. This technology was first used on the SS Great Eastern in 1866. Steam steering engines had the characteristics of a modern servomechanism: an input, an output, an error signal, and a means for amplifying the error signal used for negative feedback to drive the error towards zero.
Electrical servomechanisms require a power amplifier. World War II saw the development of electrical fire control servomechanisms, using an amplidyne as the power amplifier. Vacuum tube amplifiers were used in the UNISERVO tape drive for the UNIVAC I computer.
The origin of the word is believed to come from the french “Le-Servomoteur” or slavemotor, first used by Farcot in 1868 to describe hydraulic and steam engines for use in ship steering.
RC servos are hobbyist remote control devices servos typically employed in radio-controlled models, where they are used to provide actuation for various mechanical systems such as the steering of a car, the flaps on a plane, or the rudder of a boat.
RC servos are composed of a DC motor mechanically linked to a potentiometer. Pulse-width modulation (PWM) signals sent to the servo are translated into position commands by electronics inside the servo. When the servo is commanded to rotate, the DC motor is powered until the potentiometer reaches the value corresponding to the commanded position.
Due to their affordability, reliability, and simplicity of control by microprocessors, RC servos are often used in small-scale robotics applications.
The servo is controlled by three wires: ground (usually black/orange), power (red) and control (brown/other colour). This wiring sequence is not true for all servos, for example the S03NXF Std. Servo is wired as brown(negative), red (positive) and orange (signal). The servo will move based on the pulses sent over the control wire, which set the angle of the actuator arm. The servo expects a pulse every 20 ms in order to gain correct information about the angle. The width of the servo pulse dictates the range of the servo's angular motion. A servo pulse of 1.5 ms width will set the servo to its "neutral" position, or 90°. For example a servo pulse of 1.25 ms could set the servo to 0° and a pulse of 1.75 ms could set the servo to 180°. The physical limits and timings of the servo hardware varies between brands and models, but a general servo's angular motion will travel somewhere in the range of 180° - 210° and the neutral position is almost always at 1.5 ms.
Servo motors are usually powered from either NiCad or the more environmentally friendly NiMH packs common to most RC devices. Voltage ratings vary from product to product, but most servos are operated at 4.8 V or 6 V DC from a 4 or 5 cell battery.