DC Motors

Most devices in an airplane, from the starter to the automatic pilot, depend upon mechanical energy furnished by direct current motors. A direct current motor is a rotating machine, which transforms direct current energy into mechanical energy. It consists of two principal parts—a field assembly and an armature assembly. The armature is the rotating part in which current carrying wires are acted upon by the magnetic field.


Figure 1. Force on a current carrying wire.

Whenever a current carrying wire is placed in the field of a magnet, a force acts on the wire. The force is not one of attraction or repulsion; however, it is at right angles to the wire and also at right angles to the magnetic field set up by the magnet. The action of the force upon a current carrying wire placed in a magnetic field is shown in Figure 1. A wire is located between two permanent magnets. The lines of force in the magnetic field are from the north pole to the south pole. When no current flows, as in Figure 1A, no force is exerted on the wire, but when current flows through the wire, a magnetic field is set up about it, as shown in Figure 1B. The direction of the field depends on the direction of current flow. Current in one direction creates a clockwise field about the wire, and current in the other direction, a counterclockwise field.

Since the current carrying wire produces a magnetic field, a reaction occurs between the field about the wire and the magnetic field between the magnets. When the current flows in a direction to create a counterclockwise magnetic field about the wire, this field and the field between the magnets add or reinforce at the bottom of the wire because the lines of force are in the same direction. At the top of the wire, they subtract or neutralize, since the lines of force in the two fields are opposite in direction. Thus, the resulting field at the bottom is strong and the one at the top is weak. Consequently, the wire is pushed upward as shown in Figure 1C. The wire is always pushed away from the side where the field is strongest.

If current flow through the wire were reversed in direction, the two fields would add at the top and subtract at the bottom. Since a wire is always pushed away from the strong field, the wire would be pushed down.

Force Between Parallel Conductors

Two wires carrying current in the vicinity of one another exert a force on each other because of their magnetic fields. An end view of two conductors is shown in Figure 2. In A, electron flow in both conductors is toward the reader, and the magnetic fields are clockwise around the conductors. Between the wires, the fields cancel because the directions of the two fields oppose each other. The wires are forced in the direction of the weaker field, toward each other. This force is one of attraction. In B, the electron flow in the two wires is in opposite directions.


Figure 2. Fields surrounding parallel conductors.

The magnetic fields are, therefore, clockwise in one and counterclockwise in the other, as shown. The fields reinforce each other between the wires, and the wires are forced in the direction of the weaker field, away from each other. This force is one of repulsion.

To summarize: conductors carrying current in the same direction tend to be drawn together; conductors carrying current in opposite directions tend to be repelled from each other.

Developing Torque

If a coil in which current is flowing is placed in a magnetic field, a force is produced which will cause the coil to rotate. In the coil shown in Figure 3, current flows inward on side A and outward on side B. The magnetic field about B is clockwise and that about A, counterclockwise. As previously explained, a force will develop which pushes side B downward. At the same time, the field of the magnets and the field about A, in which the current is inward, will add at the bottom and subtract at the top. Therefore, A will move upward. The coil will thus rotate until its plane is perpendicular to the magnetic lines between the north and south poles of the magnet, as indicated in Figure 3 by the white coil at right angles to the black coil.


Figure 3. Developing a torque.

The tendency of a force to produce rotation is called torque. When the steering wheel of a car is turned, torque is applied. The engine of an airplane gives torque to the propeller. Torque is developed also by the reacting magnetic fields about the current carrying coil just described. This is the torque, which turns the coil.

The right-hand motor rule can be used to determine the direction a current carrying wire will move in a magnetic field. As illustrated in Figure 4, if the index finger of the right hand is pointed in the direction of the magnetic field and the second finger in the direction of current flow, the thumb will indicate the direction the current carrying wire will move.


Figure 4. Right-hand motor rule.

Figure 10-5. Torque on a coil at various angles of rotation.

The amount of torque developed in a coil depends upon several factors: the strength of the magnetic field, the number of turns in the coil, and the position of the coil in the field. Magnets are made of special steel that produces a strong field. Since there is torque acting on each turn, the greater the number of turns on the coil, the greater the torque. In a coil carrying a steady current located in a uniform magnetic field, the torque will vary at successive positions of rotation, as shown in Figure 5. When the plane of the coil is parallel to the lines of force, the torque is zero. When its plane cuts the lines of force at right angles, the torque is 100 percent. At intermediate positions, the torque ranges between zero and 100 percent.

Basic DC Motor

A coil of wire through which the current flows will rotate when placed in a magnetic field. This is the technical basis governing the construction of a DC motor. Figure 6 shows a coil mounted in a magnetic field in which it can rotate. However, if the connecting wires from the battery were permanently fastened to the terminals of the coil and there was a flow of current, the coil would rotate only until it lined itself up with the magnetic field. Then, it would stop, because the torque at that point would be zero.

A motor, of course, must continue rotating. It is therefore necessary to design a device that will reverse the current in the coil just at the time the coil becomes parallel to the lines of force. This will create torque again and cause the coil to rotate. If the current reversing device is set up to reverse the current each time the coil is about to stop, the coil can be made to continue rotating as long as desired.

One method of doing this is to connect the circuit so that, as the coil rotates, each contact slides off the terminal to which it connects and slides onto the terminal of opposite polarity. In other words, the coil contacts switch terminals continuously as the coil rotates, preserving the torque and keeping the coil rotating. In Figure 6, the coil terminal segments are labeled A and B. As the coil rotates, the segments slide onto and past the fixed terminals or brushes. With this arrangement, the direction of current in the side of the coil next to the north-seeking pole flows toward the reader, and the force acting on that side of the coil turns it downward. The part of the motor, which changes the current from one wire to another, is called the commutator.

Figure 6 (Part 1). Basic DC motor operation.

Position A When the coil is positioned as shown in Figure 6A, current will flow from the negative terminal of the battery to the negative (−) brush, to segment B of the commutator, through the loop to segment A of the commutator, to the positive (+) brush, and then, back to the positive terminal of the battery. By using the right-hand motor rule, it is seen that the coil will rotate counterclockwise. The torque at this position of the coil is maximum, since the greatest number of lines of force is being cut by the coil.

Position B When the coil has rotated 90° to the position shown in Figure 6B, segments A and B of the commutator no longer make contact with the battery circuit and no current can flow through the coil. At this position, the torque has reached a minimum value, since a minimum number of lines of force are being cut. However, the momentum of the coil carries it beyond this position until the segments again make contact with the brushes, and current again enters the coil; this time, though, it enters through segment A and leaves through segment B. However, since the positions of segments A and B have also been reversed, the effect of the current is as before, the torque acts in the same direction, and the coil continues its counterclockwise rotation.


Figure 6 (Part 2). Basic DC motor operation.

Position C On passing through the position shown in Figure 6C, the torque again reaches maximum.

Position D Continued rotation carries the coil again to a position of minimum torque, as in Figure 6D. At this position, the brushes no longer carry current, but once more the momentum rotates the coil to the point where current enters through segment B and leaves through A. Further rotation brings the coil to the starting point and, thus, one revolution is completed.

The switching of the coil terminals from the positive to the negative brushes occurs twice per revolution of the coil.

The torque in a motor containing only a single coil is neither continuous nor very effective, for there are two positions where there is actually no torque at all. To overcome this, a practical DC motor contains a large number of coils wound on the armature. These coils are so spaced that, for any position of the armature, there will be coils near the poles of the magnet. This makes the torque both continuous and strong. The commutator, likewise, contains a large number of segments instead of only two.

The armature in a practical motor is not placed between the poles of a permanent magnet but between those of an electromagnet, since a much stronger magnetic field can be furnished. The core is usually made of a mild or annealed steel, which can be magnetized strongly by induction. The current magnetizing the electromagnet is from the same source that supplies the current to the armature. DC Motor Construction The major parts in a practical motor are the armature assembly, the field assembly, the brush assembly, and the end frame. [Figure 7]


Figure 7. Cutaway view of practical DC motor.

Armature Assembly

The armature assembly contains a laminated, soft iron core, coils, and a commutator, all mounted on a rotatable steel shaft. Laminations made of stacks of soft iron, insulated from each other, form the armature core. Solid iron is not used, since a solid iron core revolving in the magnetic field would heat and use energy needlessly. The armature windings are insulated copper wire, which are inserted in slots insulated with fiber paper (fish paper) to protect the windings. The ends of the windings are connected to the commutator segments. Wedges or steel bands hold the windings in place to prevent them from flying out of the slots when the armature is rotating at high speeds. The commutator consists of a large number of copper segments insulated from each other and the armature shaft by pieces of mica. Insulated wedge rings hold the segments in place

Field Assembly

The field assembly consists of the field frame, the pole pieces, and the field coils. The field frame is located along the inner wall of the motor housing. It contains laminated soft steel pole pieces on which the field coils are wound. A coil, consisting of several turns of insulated wire, fits over each pole piece and, together with the pole, constitutes a field pole. Some motors have as few as two poles, others as many as eight.

Brush Assembly

The brush assembly consists of the brushes and their holders. The brushes are usually small blocks of graphitic carbon, since this material has a long service life and also causes minimum wear to the commutator. The holders permit some play in the brushes so they can follow any irregularities in the surface of the commutator and make good contact. Springs hold the brushes firmly against the commutator. A commutator and two types of brushes are shown in Figure 8.


Figure 8. Commutator and brushes.

End Frame

 The end frame is the part of the motor opposite the commutator. Usually, the end frame is designed so that it can be connected to the unit to be driven. The bearing for the drive end is also located in the end frame. Sometimes the end frame is made a part of the unit driven by the motor. When this is done, the bearing on the drive end may be located in any one of a number of places. Tube type brush Box type brush Figure 8. Commutator and brushes.

Types of DC Motors

There are three basic types of DC motors: (1) series motors, (2) shunt motors, and (3) compound motors. They differ largely in the method in which their field and armature coils are connected.

Series DC Motor


Figure 9. Series motor.

In the series motor, the field windings, consisting of a relatively few turns of heavy wire, are connected in series with the armature winding. Both a diagrammatic and a schematic illustration of a series motor are shown in Figure 9. The same current flowing through the field winding also flows through the armature winding. Any increase in current, therefore, strengthens the magnetism of both the field and the armature.

Because of the low resistance in the windings, the series motor is able to draw a large current in starting. This starting current, in passing through both the field and armature windings, produces a high starting torque, which is the series motor’s principal advantage.

The speed of a series motor is dependent upon the load. Any change in load is accompanied by a substantial change in speed. A series motor will run at high speed when it has a light load and at low speed with a heavy load. If the load is removed entirely, the motor may operate at such a high speed that the armature will fly apart. If high starting torque is needed under heavy load conditions, series motors have many applications. Series motors are often used in aircraft as engine starters and for raising and lowering landing gears, cowl flaps, and wing flaps.

Shunt DC Motor


Figure 10. Shunt motor.

In the shunt motor, the field winding is connected in parallel or in shunt with the armature winding. [Figure 10] The resistance in the field winding is high. Since the field winding is connected directly across the power supply, the current through the field is constant. The field current does not vary with motor speed, as in the series motor and, therefore, the torque of the shunt motor will vary only with the current through the armature. The torque developed at starting is less than that developed by a series motor of equal size.

The speed of the shunt motor varies very little with changes in load. When all load is removed, it assumes a speed slightly higher than the loaded speed. This motor is particularly suitable for use when constant speed is desired and when high starting torque is not needed.

Compound DC Motor


Figure 11. Compound motor.

The compound motor is a combination of the series and shunt motors. There are two windings in the field: a shunt winding and a series winding. A schematic of a compound motor is shown in Figure 11. The shunt winding is composed of many turns of fine wire and is connected in parallel with the armature winding. The series winding consists of a few turns of large wire and is connected in series with the armature winding. The starting torque is higher than in the shunt motor but lower than in the series motor. Variation of speed with load is less than in a series wound motor but greater than in a shunt motor. The compound motor is used whenever the combined characteristics of the series and shunt motors are desired.

Like the compound generator, the compound motor has both series and shunt field windings. The series winding may either aid the shunt wind (cumulative compound) or oppose the shunt winding (differential compound). The starting and load characteristics of the cumulative compound motor are somewhere between those of the series and those of the shunt motor.

Because of the series field, the cumulative compound motor has a higher starting torque than a shunt motor. Cumulative compound motors are used in driving machines, which are subject to sudden changes in load. They are also used where a high starting torque is desired, but a series motor cannot be used easily.

In the differential compound motor, an increase in load creates an increase in current and a decrease in total flux in this type of motor. These two tend to offset each other and the result is a practically constant speed. However, since an increase in load tends to decrease the field strength, the speed characteristic becomes unstable. Rarely is this type of motor used in aircraft systems.

A graph of the variation in speed with changes of load of the various types of DC motors is shown in Figure 11.


Figure 11. Load characteristics of DC motors.

 Counter Electromotive Force (emf)

The armature resistance of a small, 28-volt DC motor is extremely low, about 0.1 ohm. When the armature is connected across the 28-volt source, current through the armature will apparently be

I = E  = 28  = 280 Amperes
R 0.1

This high value of current flow is not only impracticable but also unreasonable, especially when the current drain, during normal operation of a motor, is found to be about 4 amperes. This is because the current through a motor armature during operation is determined by more factors than ohmic resistance.

When the armature in a motor rotates in a magnetic field, a voltage is induced in its windings. This voltage is called the back or counter emf (electromotive force) and is opposite in direction to the voltage applied to the motor from the external source.

Counter emf opposes the current, which causes the armature to rotate. The current flowing through the armature, therefore, decreases as the counter emf increases. The faster the armature rotates, the greater the counter emf. For this reason, a motor connected to a battery may draw a fairly high current on starting, but as the armature speed increases, the current flowing through the armature decreases. At rated speed, the counter emf may be only a few volts less than the battery voltage. Then, if the load on the motor is increased, the motor will slow down, less counter emf will be generated, and the current drawn from the external source will increase. In a shunt motor, the counter emf affects only the current in the armature, since the field is connected in parallel across the power source. As the motor slows down and the counter emf decreases, more current flows through the armature, but the magnetism in the field is unchanged. When the series motor slows down, the counter emf decreases and more current flows through the field and the armature, thereby strengthening their magnetic fields. Because of these characteristics, it is more difficult to stall a series motor than a shunt motor.

Types of Duty

Electric motors are called upon to operate under various conditions. Some motors are used for intermittent operation; others operate continuously. Motors built for intermittent duty can be operated for short periods only and, then, must be allowed to cool before being operated again. If such a motor is operated for long periods under full load, the motor will be overheated. Motors built for continuous duty may be operated at rated power for long periods.

Reversing Motor Direction

By reversing the direction of current flow in either the armature or the field windings, the direction of a motor’s rotation may be reversed. This will reverse the magnetism of either the armature or the magnetic field in which the armature rotates. If the wires connecting the motor to an external source are interchanged, the direction of rotation will not be reversed, since changing these wires reverses the magnetism of both field and armature and leaves the torque in the same direction as before.


Figure 12. Split field series motor.

One method for reversing direction of rotation employs two field windings wound in opposite directions on the same pole. This type of motor is called a split field motor. Figure 12 shows a series motor with a split field winding. The single pole, double throw switch makes it possible to direct current through either of the two windings. When the switch is placed in the lower position, current flows through the lower field winding, creating a north pole at the lower field winding and at the lower pole piece, and a south pole at the upper pole piece. When the switch is placed in the upper position, current flows through the upper field winding, the magnetism of the field is reversed, and the armature rotates in the opposite direction. Some split field motors are built with two separate field windings wound on alternate poles. The armature in such a motor, a four pole reversible motor, rotates in one direction when current flows through the windings of one set of opposite pole pieces, and in the opposite direction when current flows through the other set of windings.


Figure 13. Switch method of reversing motor direction.

Another method of direction reversal, called the switch method, employs a double pole, double throw switch which changes the direction of current flow in either the armature or the field. In the illustration of the switch method shown in Figure 13, current direction may be reversed through the field but not through the armature. When the switch is thrown to the “up” position, current flows through the field winding to establish a north pole at the right side of the motor and a south pole at the left side of the motor. When the switch is thrown to the “down” position, this polarity is reversed and the armature rotates in the opposite direction.

Motor Speed

Motor speed can be controlled by varying the current in the field windings. When the amount of current flowing through the field windings is increased, the field strength increases, but the motor slows down since a greater amount of counter emf is generated in the armature windings. When the field current is decreased, the field strength decreases, and the motor speeds up because the counter emf is reduced. A motor in which speed can be controlled is called a variable speed motor. It may be either a shunt or series motor.


Figure 14. Shunt motor with variable speed control.

In the shunt motor, speed is controlled by a rheostat in series with the field windings. [Figure 14] The speed depends on the amount of current that flows through the rheostat to the field windings. To increase the motor speed, the resistance in the rheostat is increased, which decreases the field current. As a result, there is a decrease in the strength of the magnetic field and in the counter emf. This momentarily increases the armature current and the torque. The motor will then automatically speed up until the counter emf increases and causes the armature current to decrease to its former value. When this occurs, the motor will operate at a higher fixed speed than before.

To decrease the motor speed, the resistance of the rheostat is decreased. More current flows through the field windings and increases the strength of the field; then, the counter emf increases momentarily and decreases the armature current. As a result, the torque decreases and the motor slows down until the counter emf decreases to its former value; then the motor operates at a lower fixed speed than before.

In the series motor, the rheostat speed control is connected either in parallel or in series with the motor field, or in parallel with the armature. When the rheostat is set for maximum resistance, the motor speed is increased in the parallel armature connection by a decrease in current. When the rheostat resistance is maximum in the series connection, motor speed is reduced by a reduction in voltage across the motor. For above normal speed operation, the rheostat is in parallel with the series field. Part of the series field current is bypassed and the motor speeds up. [Figure 15]


Figure 15. Controlling the speed of a series DC motor

Energy Losses in DC Motors

Losses occur when electrical energy is converted to mechanical energy (in the motor), or mechanical energy is converted to electrical energy (in the generator). For the machine to be efficient, these losses must be kept to a minimum. Some losses are electrical; others are mechanical. Electrical losses are classified as copper losses and iron losses; mechanical losses occur in overcoming the friction of various parts of the machine.

Copper losses occur when electrons are forced through the copper windings of the armature and the field. These losses are proportional to the square of the current. They are sometimes called I2R losses, since they are due to the power dissipated in the form of heat in the resistance of the field and armature windings.

Iron losses are subdivided in hysteresis and eddy current losses. Hysteresis losses are caused by the armature revolving in an alternating magnetic field. It, therefore, becomes magnetized first in one direction and then in the other. The residual magnetism of the iron or steel of which the armature is made causes these losses. Since the field magnets are always magnetized in one direction (DC field), they have no hysteresis losses.

Eddy current losses occur because the iron core of the armature is a conductor revolving in a magnetic field. This sets up an emf across portions of the core, causing currents to flow within the core. These currents heat the core and, if they become excessive, may damage the windings. As far as the output is concerned, the power consumed by eddy currents is a loss. To reduce eddy currents to a minimum, a laminated core usually is used. A laminated core is made of thin sheets of iron electrically insulated from each other. The insulation between laminations reduces eddy currents, because it is “transverse” to the direction in which these currents tend to flow. However, it has no effect on the magnetic circuit. The thinner the laminations, the more effectively this method reduces eddy current losses.

Inspection and Maintenance of DC Motors

Use the following procedures to make inspection and maintenance checks:

  1. Check the operation of the unit driven by the motor in accordance with the instructions covering the specific installation.
  2. Check all wiring, connections, terminals, fuses, and switches for general condition and security.
  3. Keep motors clean and mounting bolts tight.
  4. Check brushes for condition, length, and spring tension. Minimum brush lengths, correct spring tension, and procedures for replacing brushes are given in the applicable manufacturer’s instructions.
  5. Inspect commutator for cleanness, pitting, scoring, roughness, corrosion or burning. Check for high mica (if the copper wears down below the mica, the mica will insulate the brushes from the commutator). Clean dirty commutators with a cloth moistened with the recommended cleaning solvent. Polish rough or corroded commutators with fine sandpaper (000 or finer) and blow out with compressed air. Never use emery paper since it contains metallic particles which may cause shorts. Replace the motor if the commutator is burned, badly pitted, grooved, or worn to the extent that the mica insulation is flush with the commutator surface.
  6. Inspect all exposed wiring for evidence of overheating. Replace the motor if the insulation on leads or windings is burned, cracked, or brittle.
  7. Lubricate only if called for by the manufacturer’s instructions covering the motor. Most motors used in today’s airplanes require no lubrication between overhauls.
  8. Adjust and lubricate the gearbox, or unit which the motor drives, in accordance with the applicable manufacturer’s instructions covering the unit.

When trouble develops in a DC motor system, check first to determine the source of the trouble. Replace the motor only when the trouble is due to a defect in the motor itself. In most cases, the failure of a motor to operate is caused by a defect in the external electrical circuit, or by mechanical failure in the mechanism driven by the motor.

Check the external electrical circuit for loose or dirty connections and for improper connection of wiring. Look for open circuits, grounds, and shorts by following the applicable manufacturer’s circuit testing procedure. If the fuse is not blown, failure of the motor to operate is usually due to an open circuit. A blown fuse usually indicates an accidental ground or short circuit. A low battery usually causes the chattering of the relay switch, which controls the motor. When the battery is low, the open circuit voltage of the battery is sufficient to close the relay, but with the heavy current draw of the motor, the voltage drops below the level required to hold the relay closed. When the relay opens, the voltage in the battery increases enough to close the relay again. This cycle repeats and causes chattering, which is very harmful to the relay switch, due to the heavy current causing an arc, which will burn the contacts.

Check the unit driven by the motor for failure of the unit or drive mechanism. If the motor has failed as a result of a failure in the driven unit, the fault must be corrected before installing a new motor.

If it has been determined that the fault is in the motor itself (by checking for correct voltage at the motor terminals and for failure of the driven unit), inspect the commutator and brushes. A dirty commutator or defective or binding brushes may result in poor contact between brushes and commutator. Clean the commutator, brushes, and brush holders with a cloth moistened with the recommended cleaning solvent. If brushes are damaged or worn to the specified minimum length, install new brushes in accordance with the applicable manufacturer’s instructions covering the motor. If the motor still fails to operate, replace it with a serviceable motor