Next-gen power_dist (part 2)

Last time I covered the limitations of the power_dist r3.1, here I’ll cover some iterations of the design process.

My initial design goals for this version are based largely around improving the major limitations identified before:

  • Positive side switching: By switching the positive rail, a whole class of use failures is removed, as most people expect ground to be common throughout a system.
  • Increased voltage range: moteus r4.5 and the pi3hat both support 44V, so any new power_dist board should support at least that.
  • Lower quiescent current: Ideally, the quiescent current would be measured in microamps, or at least at a level that it does not confuse BMS systems.
  • Energy monitoring: Often in the development of the quad A1, I wanted to have a system level power and energy monitoring solution so as to identify the energy cost of various maneuvers and gaits. Tracking that at the power_dist level seems like a logical place.
  • Wider load envelope: The 3.1 version had a relatively limited maximum downstream capacitance and turn-on current draw. It was enough to power on 12 moteus controllers and a small computer, but not much else.

To achieve these goals, I decided to try using what is known as a “hot swap controller”. These are integrated circuits that are intended for use in cards that plug into server backplanes. Given that any given card could potentially have a large decoupling capacitance, inserting it live into a backplane could cause arcing, and high currents that cause the overall bus voltage to drop outside of tolerable limits.

While such controllers are intended to be used at the point of load, they are largely applicable in this centralized system too, where the “hot plugging” is of a battery instead of an individual load.

And here is where my design story becomes “complicated”. Because both I didn’t fully work through the consequences of each design approach, and because I was not familiar with the intrinsic limitations of hot swap controllers, I ended up taking a route that involved 4 different prototypes before I arrived at one that was mostly acceptable. Rather than go down that route linearly, in the next post I’ll instead distill what I learned about hot swap controllers and design before describing the final solution.