Abstract Because friction-induced nonlinearities in positioning systems are generally range of motion-dependent, dual-model or dual-stage strategies are often adopted to deal with the inconsistencies encountered when a system moves from submicrometer steps (micro mode) to larger scale strokes (macro mode). Although good performance is usually obtained when each model/stage operates in its designed range of motion, a system frequently performs less satisfactorally when operating near the switching point between models or stages. An air-lubricated capstan drive was used in this study to minimize the discrepancy between macro and micro modes, and a single-mode MRAC was developed to control the capstan drive system for precision positioning. Accuracy better than ±15 nm with no overshooting was achieved in all conditions tested (including 50 nm, 500 nm and 10 μm steps). Disturbance resistance of the system also proved to be satisfactory.