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Pulse Width Modulation

Pulse Width Modulation (PWM) is the technique used from a digital source to simulate an analog output.

For example, imagine that you want to dim an led from a digital device. The digital device only has pins that can take 2 values: 0 or 3V3.

0 means that the led will be off, 3V3 means it will be at 100% of its brightness.

To show it at 50% of its brightness, the idea is to turn it off 50% of the time, and on 50% of the time.

To show it at 25% of its brightness, it will be on 25% of the time, and off 75% of the time.

If the on-off cycles are short and fast enough, a human eye will no be able to see them, it will only have the illusion of the resulting brightness.

PWM Brightness
75 75
50 50
25 25

Same article on Hocus-Blogus, with a small video showing how to dim leds with PWM.

The Raspberry Pi does not have analog pins, we need to use Pulse Width Modulation to simulate analog values, a servo is an analog device.

We use for that the method setPWM(channel, 0, pulse);, that will eventually write to the registers of the device.

An instruction like setPWM(channel, 0, pulse); means:

  • On channel channel (0 to 15 on the PCA9685)
  • in each cycle, turn the power on between 0 and pulse.

pulse has a value between 0 and 4095, that is 4096 distinct values, 4096 is 212, the PCA9685 is a 12 bit device.

The frequency

The frequency is provided in Hertz (Hz). A frequency of 60 means 60 cycles per second.

At 60 Hz, a cycle will be 1 / 60 second, which is 0.01666666 second, or 16.66666 milli-seconds (ms).

The pulse

For each of the cycles set above by setting the frequency, we need to determine the int value, between 0 and 4095, corresponding to the pulse in milliseconds we want to simulate with PWM.

In the class, this is done in this method:

public static int getServoValueFromPulse(int freq, float targetPulse) {
  double pulseLength = 1_000_000; // 1s = 1,000,000 us per pulse. "us" is to be read "micro (mu) sec".
  pulseLength /= freq;  // 40..1000 Hz
  pulseLength /= 4_096; // 12 bits of resolution. 4096 = 2^12
  int pulse = (int) Math.round((targetPulse * 1_000) / pulseLength); // in millisec
  if (verbose) {
    System.out.println(String.format("%.04f \u00b5s per bit, pulse: %d", pulseLength, pulse));
  return pulse;

The cycle length - in ms - obviously depends on the frequency.

The pulse required for the servo to react is emitted once per cycle.


As an example, let us calculate for a 60 Hz frequency the pulse value to send to setPWM(channel, 0, pulse); for a 1.5 millisecond PWM:

  • 1 cycle has a duration of 1 / 60 second, or 16.66666 milliseconds.
  • each cycle is divided in 4096 slots, we can say that 4096 = 16.6666.
  • the solution is provided by a rule of three: value = 4096 * (pulse / 16.66666), which is 368.64, rounded to 369.

A comment about servos

Theoretically, servos follow those rules:

Pulse Standard Continuous
1.5 ms 0 ° Stop
2.0 ms 90 ° FullSpeed forward
1.0 ms -90 ° FullSpeed backward

That happens not to be always true, some servos (like or have values going between 0.5 ms and 2.5 ms.

Before using them, servos should be calibrated. You can use the class can be used for that, you set the pulse values interactively, and you see what the servo is doing.

$> ./inter.servo
Connected to bus. OK.
Connected to device. OK.
freq (40-1000)  ? > 60
Setting PWM frequency to 60 Hz
Estimated pre-scale: 100.72526
Final pre-scale: 101.0
Servo Channel (0-15) : 1
Entry method: T for Ticks (0..4095), P for Pulse (in ms) > p
Enter 'quit' to exit.
Pulse in ms > 1.5
setServoPulse(1, 1.5)
4.0690 μs per bit, pulse:369
Pulse in ms > 0.5
setServoPulse(1, 0.5)
4.0690 μs per bit, pulse:122
Pulse in ms > 0.6
setServoPulse(1, 0.6)
4.0690 μs per bit, pulse:147
Pulse in ms > 2.4
setServoPulse(1, 2.4)
4.0690 μs per bit, pulse:589
Pulse in ms > 2.5
setServoPulse(1, 2.5)
4.0690 μs per bit, pulse:614
... etc.

Once you have determined the appropriate min and max values, you also have the int values to feed the setPWM with.

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