It was a dark and stormy night. There I was, causing mischief in my shop when a friend of mine at Enertion hit me up and asked if I would like to be a part of the Unity beta tester’s program. I immediately asked if that meant I would get free shit. Free shit was confirmed, and my new Beta 1 version of the now shipping Unity motor controller was on its way.
The minute it arrived, the build up for the inevitable torture of this unwitting electronic device began. Sure, we ooooo-ed and ahhhh-ed over the bright orange coloring and shiny orange anodized aluminum. The features were all there as promised, and we were told that this thing could really take a beating. So, naturally, we set out to do just that.
The Test Rig
The first thing we did was set up a test rig. Basically what that means is we covered the bottom of my old Brad Edwards 40″ Gravity in velcro and bolted some battery straps to it. This allows us to pretty much stick on anything we want to it in order to test. We’ve burned up a number of items here so far, including an FSESC 4.20 Dual from FlipSky. Obviously it looks like a miraculous feat of red neck engineering when we ride on it but that’s not important. What’s important is now we can see how these things people send me will perform on the street so that I can either sing their praise or beat them with sticks for failing the community.
Features and Configuration
To begin with, this isn’t just a couple of FocBoxes taped together under a heat sink. The Unity is the result of completely re-imagining the concept of dual ESCs. It has one processor controlling both motors, neither of which is firing at the same time at any given moment, optimizing power draw and capacitor usage. It’s optimized in a number of other ways as well, and hopefully I can get more into that with a deeper look into what makes it so special in another article soon. What all this adds up to is a smarter device with smarter software that really takes the hassle out of setting up two motors simultaneously. Additional perks such as a built in anti spark switch and a place to plug in your fuel gauge are also very welcome, as are the UART port and CAN bus controller.
The Unity has its own software, and it is indeed a breath of fresh air compared to the standard tools (BLDC Tool, VESC Tool, etc) that the community is currently used to. When entering your desired settings, there’s only one screen for both motors. That alone is convenient enough, but during detection you have the opportunity to spin each motor by hand in order to tell it which direction they should be spinning. No more stopping motor detection and swapping phase leads, or digging for that little check box to reverse direction on one controller and not the other. Little things like this, which really aren’t all that little from an improvements perspective, really add up to a much more pleasant experience. I think we’ve all been hoping for a more pleasant ESC set-up experience.
Before we get into the abuse
Considering how much I enjoy seeing things puff up in smoke, it may seem odd to you for me to say that I actually prefer things to just work and work well. I prefer to use and endorse things that don’t cause headaches and just work when they’re supposed to. However, in order to do that, things have to fail so that I can see what sucks. But before I set out to intentionally try and fail this new device by doing all the things that normally break all the other electric skateboard motor controllers I’ve ever used, I wanted to see how nice it was just to ride.
I was not at all in any way disappointed by the performance of the Unity. From the easy configuration to the integrated features (that eliminated a few parts from the build) to the way it just lets the power flow to the street, it was just lovely. With current handling up to 100 amps, at 12S this nasty little controller kicked a lot of ass and took everything the twin 10Ah 6S Tattu Li-Poly batteries I had wired in series could throw at it. Very smooth acceleration, brakes as heavy handed as you want them to be, and generally very comfortable operation are the hallmarks of this product. It had no trouble launching Betty with utter authority when slamming on the throttle, and would happily either gently glide to or lock up and skid to a stop when either were desired.
In a nutshell, I was thrilled with it and wanted to keep it forever. I found the Unity to be the ideal motor controller for builders as well as riders. Unfortunately, I knew I was going to just end up breaking it eventually because that’s the whole idea here. I break things to see if they suck or not.
And now for the abuse
I did a number of things to try and kill it. I maxed out all the settings and slammed the throttle from a dead stop but no sudden cut-outs. I took it up to full speed on the street and slammed the breaks, but no faults were thrown. I started it out on ridiculous inclines from a backwards roll and it just never choked. We put the back wheels in sand and tried starting from a stand still. I put the nose of the board against a wall, had my full weight on it, and roasted urethane, but still no faults. We did all the things on the street a regular rider could do to confuse and defeat a motor controller, and it won the contest every time. So, we took it to the bench to force the hand of Skatan upon it.
Once we had Betty benched and the unity in full view, we decided to start doing the bad things to it. First, we spun the motors up and slammed on the breaks repeatedly. That’s been known to bin a 4.12 VESC in short order when the units aren’t built to handle voltage spikes from sudden braking. After doing this repeatedly for a few dozen times, we gradually came to realize it wasn’t susceptible to this attack, so we moved on. The next thing I tried was plugging the volt meter in backwards, which happily blew up the volt meter and did nothing whatsoever to the unity. Then I plugged a receiver in backwards and got similar results. Nothing bad happened, except to the reciever.
I continued on this way and started feeling a little defeated in my little battle against the Unity, because everything I threw at it got thrown back in my face, and now I had a blown volt meter and a non-responsive receiver. Unity seemed a sassy little thing that takes shit from no-one, so the stakes got raised.
I decided to move in for the kill. Up until now, there was no motor controller that I had used that could handle running motor detection on shorted phase leads or shorted motors. This is something that would normally put holes in controller chips and burn marks on heat shrink, but was so easy to accidentally do that by now there must be acres of landfill full of dead ESCs. Best case, popped caps and burned resistors, right? Wrong. In the video below, I was able to record and document for posterity the third time I ran detection on a known bad motor. This is one of my own branded motors that we previously destroyed. It was filled with shorted windings and garbage. Behold the Unity and all the fucks it doesn’t give:
That’s right, smoke. Smoke was coming from the motor, but the Unity was not dead. The Unity was in fact still yawning at this point. Fucking smoke. I did this two more times before swapping the motor, re-running detection, and taking it back out onto the street. It was just fine after that, and I was speechless for days. Just to reiterate, five times it ran detection on a shorted motor, five times it put smoke from the motor into the air, and five times it survived without so much a whimper.
Then the brine got into it
Unfortunately, not even the Unity Beta 1 could survive the drowning that occurred on the last day of testing. We got stuck in a torrential downpour while stress testing on the street and eventually found the device breifly submerged in muddy rain water on a deceptively deep sidewalk. At first it seemed like it would be fine, as it was operational for a while after the soaking. However, as with a lot of water damage in other situations, deposits were left on the PCB and those deposits were conductive enough to eventually short the right pins and kill it once the water evaporated.
I brought it home and did my best to clean the PCB, but no dice. Eventually it was sent back to my favorite Enertion guy in Canada for inspection along with all the stories I had and a brief clip of smoke coming from my motors.
A few months later, however, it was returned to me, and my testing was credited with improvements, primarily a heavier lacquer conformal coating on the PCB. On top of that, the tech was able to find the offending bit of muddy rain deposit and remove it, and now my Beta 1 is working again, just in time for another very special build that I can’t yet talk about.
I’m not going to keep repeating how much i loved the Unity, so I’ll wrap it up. It’s just fucking awesome. Allegedly the Beta 2 and the final product are even tougher and have a few more good features. I never made it home with a Beta 2 despite being handed one directly by an Enertion rep during our time together in Las Vegas at the Esk8 Squad Renegade Weekend. You see, somebody stole that shit from me right out of my room and if I find them, well… let’s just say hitting a rock while riding isn’t the only way to street your face. But I digress. The important thing here is that word on the street is the final Unity is tough enough to easily handle 13S with all the grace and stamina that the Beta 1 was able to handle 12S. And if that’s the case, I think you know where the community will be headed next, including yours truly.
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