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Building a Miniature Gimbal System in Minutes!

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Build a Miniature Gimbal System with Off-the-Shelf Hardware in Minutes
In research labs around the world, palm-sized motorized gimbal stages are used to align optical fibers, steer lasers, and adjust the angle of lenses and mirrors for optical systems. It can be easy to set up the exact gimbal configuration required when using off-the-shelf modular hardware with well-integrated software and electronics. This combination streamlines the configuration process and achieves optimal performance. In this article, we explain how to take advantage of Zaber’s modular, off-the-shelf rotary and tilt stages, brackets, and built-in controllers to build an astounding variety of 2 and 3-axis gimbal systems.

Ultra-compact rotary stages from Zaber’s RSM product line provide unlimited rotation about a central axis, which is ideal for gimbal systems requiring large angular adjustments. These rotary stages are designed with modularity in mind; a standard mounting pattern enables direct mounting to other stages and brackets. They also feature a stepper motor driven worm drive with 60:1 gear ratio that is non-back driving, providing power-off stability for gimbal systems Standard options include built-in controllers to provide single-cable daisy chaining with Zaber’s motion control ecosystem, allowing for fast setup and clean cabling.

The other key ingredient for building a miniature gimbal system are ultra-compact goniometer stages such as Zaber’s GSM product line. Goniometer stages tilt about a virtual axis above the stage top and offer the advantage of complete access to the payload and the rotation axis from any horizontal direction. Like the RSM rotary stages, these goniometers are available with built-in controllers, share the same stackable mounting patterns, and use non-backdriving worm drives.

Keeping modularity in mind, the GSM40 (40 mm below the tilt axis) and GSM60 (60 mm below the tilt axis) goniometers are designed to stack one on top of the other such that their tilt axes intersect. This is ideal for optical systems where unobstructed light must pass through the rotation center.

The Beauty of Common Form Factors & Mounting Patterns
Zaber RSM and GSM stages can be stacked in any order because they share the same square mounting pattern (4X M3 thread) and a common set of alignment features. The feet on one device seat tightly into alignment bores on the stage top of another device. This keeps the centers aligned between stacked devices and clocks the stages to 90 degree increments. To center custom payloads or 3rd party components, the 4 mm center bore may be used as an alignment reference with a dowel pin.

Final Hardware Ingredient: Adaptors
The final piece of the gimbal system are these adaptors which allow almost any combination of orientations between devices:

Example Configurations
Combining off-the-shelf RSM rotary and GSM tilt stages with the brackets described above, creates nearly endless configurations of 2 and 3-axis gimbal arrangements.

Special Considerations
The best gimbal configuration for your application will depend on the specifics of your task, and some requirements can be more obvious than others

  • How many axes of rotation are needed?
  • What range of motion is needed for each axis?
  • Is there a risk of cables tangling or will any part of the system collide with another?
  • Is the order of rotations critical?
    • For example,stacking a rotary stage under two goniometer tilt stages ensures that rotation axis will always be fixed relative to the world coordinate system, but stacking the rotary stage on top makes it possible to rotate more than 360° without tangled cables.
  • Does the system need clearance for an overhanging payload or for optical paths?
  • Do the axes of rotation need to intersect at a common point? Should this virtual intersection point be accessible above the system platform or can it be buried somewhere in the mechanics?
  • Will there be potential for kinematic singularities such as gimbal lock?
    • Gimbal locking is a common issue for tracking systems where infinite acceleration would be needed to follow a smooth trajectory through the point of singularity.

Moving All the Pieces in Synch
Having covered the gimbal stage hardware, let's now explore the steps required to get a gimbal system up and running.

The GSM and RSM products discussed here are available with either a built-in controller or as peripheral devices which can be connected to an external controller such as the X-MCC. The stages with built-in controllers can share power and data along a single daisy-chained cable, making setup and cable management exceptionally easy. Although an external controller requires connecting each stage individually back to the controller, it allows for true synchronized motion between devices and offers other hardware features not available on the built-in controllers, such as digital and analog inputs and outputs.

Both controller options are plug-and-play so that low level settings do not need to be configured. After plugging everything in, moving the system for the first time is as simple as turning a control knob or clicking through the graphical interface of Zaber Launcher, a free software application.

Finally, to integrate the motion system into your workflow, Zaber Motion Library provides an easy-to-use API for communication and control of Zaber devices. The Zaber Motion Library supports commonly used programming languages including, Python, C#, JavaScript, Java, and C++, as well as other options like MATLAB and Octave.

Using a combination of modular off-the-shelf hardware and well-integrated software and electronics, you have the hardware flexibility to build an ideal gimbal system and the software features to solve your problems quickly.

With your application requirements in mind, go through the special considerations and put together a shopping list of standard parts for your custom, miniature gimbal system. If you have any questions along the way, the Zaber applications engineering team is happy to help.

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About Zaber Technologies Inc.
At Zaber, we design and manufacture precision positioning devices that are affordable, integrated, and easy to use. Our devices are used in many different applications and markets, such as photonics and optics, life sciences, microscopy, and industrial automation.