Date:2 October 2013
Exoskeleton. One leg at a time. Plus seven other wildly creative inventions from supersmart people. By Glenn Derene
Type Stamp by Anthony Dimitre, icons by Spencer Lloyd
The 8th Backyard Genius Awards – unusual, unconventional, slightly irrational, utterly awesome.
Jonathan Tippett is building a giant force-feedback mechanical leg
1. Giant mechanical leg
Jonathan Tippett; Vancouver, British Columbia
When I arrive, Jonathan Tippett has just finished his lunch and is fighting his way through a badly translated user’s guide to a batch of lithium iron phosphate batteries. The sun has come out after a long, drizzly late-spring morning, and he’s seated at a small red folding table in the parking lot outside the eatART laboratory, in an industrial complex of warehouses and shipping containers. In the distance, the North Shore Mountains still have their snowcaps. I wipe the water off a chair and sit down to join him.
We talk for a few minutes about giant spiders and snakes, but I’ve come a long way to watch Tippett jump up and down on one leg, so I ask if I can see him do it. He tells me that his leg isn’t working right now, and that sucks, since I know it’s the only one he’s got. But I’m here, so he gets up and walks me into his lab to show me how impressive his limp, lifeless leg really is.
The leg is 1,8 m tall, a multi-hinged structure of welded tubular steel, fitted with hydraulic rams, dampers and air springs – all articulated like the hindquarters of a dog. It is permanently attached to a flatbed trailer by a 1,8 m-high pivoting tower, which itself is
tethered to the trailer by four heavy-duty nylon straps. Hydraulic lines extend out from the leg to a control seat on the ground next to the trailer. That seat, which Tippet calls the Exo-Frame, is built around a repurposed unicycle saddle. It has a five-point harness and an articulated metal cuff that secures to the user’s forearm with an inflatable air bladder.
The idea behind the machine is human -amplification. A user is supposed to power up the whole thing, strap himself into the Exo-Frame and lock into the cuff. Tippett and his team of volunteers designed their 1 297 kg leg to respond directly to the user’s arm movements. It can move up and down, even jump up into the air, amplifying the force applied by the user by a factor of 100.
But the leg also communicates force back to the controller; when it lands with a thud, a proportional kick is sent into the arm of the person who made it jump. And it’s worth mentioning that the control seat is meant to be mounted on top of the leg, so that the user rides the machine and operates it at the same time; Tippett admits that he hasn’t actually tried that yet. In fact, the machine has been operational for only about 10 hours total so far – but that’s about to change.
The batteries Tippett was reading up on when I arrived are the reason the leg is currently lifeless. He and his team are building them into a power pack that should make the leg reliable, rechargeable and portable. Designing and installing that power pack is the final step in the build of the leg, which the team at eatART – the engineer-artist collective that Tippett helped found – has been working on for three years. Soon, it will make the rounds of the Burning Man/Maker Faire/Ars Electronica circuit, where a creation like this could drop jaws.
But for all the work that’s gone into the project, Tippett sees it as just a starting point. He calls his creation the Alpha Leg, because it is essentially a prototype and testing platform for the machine he really wants to build: a giant, four-legged, human-controlled walking exoskeleton named Prosthesis.
There’s a surprising number of precedents for Tippett’s idea. In the 1960s, a General Electric researcher by the name of Ralph Mosher pioneered a series of “man amplifier” rigs designed to grant human beings electromechanically assisted super-strength. These machines included a four-legged walking vehicle as well as a giant claw that turned the engineers who posed for pictures with it into cyborg-nerd monsters. As awesome as the R&D programme looks in hindsight, it was ultimately shuttered because the slow, complicated manual process of manipulating these machines was both mentally and physically exhausting.
But the idea gained traction in movies. Early examples include AT-ATs and AT-STs from the Star Wars series, and the Power Loader that Ripley uses to fight extraterrestrials in Aliens. More recently, an AMP suit appeared in Avatar, and building-size Jaegers are fighting huge monsters in this year’s Pacific Rim. These giant, wearable machines constitute their own sci-fi genre, known as mechs. The idea surfaces so routinely in cinema that it’s surprising how few modern attempts have been made to create them in real life.
That’s not to say people haven’t tried. Japanese agricultural equipment manufacturer Sakakibara Kikai has created multiple giant mechs, one of which is intended for children. In the 1990s, a Finnish company called Plustech Oy (since absorbed by John Deere) prototyped a six-legged logging tractor. Videos of these machines reveal them to be sluggish, shuffling creations. But this type of slow-motion proof of concept is not what Tippett has in mind. He wants a running, jumping, nimble machine. “The world’s first sports robot,” he says.
This isn’t just a glib characterisation. Tippett’s collaborators have created an entire narrative around Prosthesis, which is part of a “robot racing league from the future”. That means team logos, T-shirts, hats, even a red jumpsuit that Tippett wears whenever he’s pictured with the Alpha Leg.
One member of the team, a video-game software engineer named Gerald Orban, drops by from the game studio next door where he works to show me the graphical user interface he is programming for Prosthesis; it’s a colourful, animated, pulsing pie chart straight out of the Iron Man movies. Part of this production is clever marketing – Tippett’s team is aiming to finance the construction of Prosthesis through an R800 000 Indiegogo campaign – but it also seems that Tippett genuinely enjoys the theatrics.
In the haphazardly funded, all-volunteer, build-by-night world in which Tippett is attempting to construct both the Alpha Leg and Prosthesis, there is room for scepticism about his chances of realising his ambitions. But there are also plenty of reasons to believe that he can: Those reasons are scattered around the eatART lab. Near the entrance is the Mondo Spider, a fully functional eight-legged walking vehicle that steers like a zero-turn tractor. Tippett built that in 2006. In the back is Titanoboa, a nightmarish 15 m-long electromechanical snake created by Tippett’s collaborator, Charlie Brinson, last year (both monsters made an appearance at the CES in Las Vegas this year and were showcased in PM Zone soon afterwards).
Tippett’s mechanical instincts first surfaced in childhood, when he raced RC cars on a track behind his home in Oakville, Ontario. “I would tinker for hours in the basement tuning the suspension of my off-road racer,” he says. He earned a mechanical engineering degree from the University of British Columbia and has worked professionally on nautical hydraulics, fuel cells and medical implants; he currently works part-time designing stents for a medical device company.
He is at times wistful about just how much of his life he has thrown into building ever-larger and more fanciful creations. Tippett is 39 now, and he thinks it will take him two more years to build Prosthesis. I ask what he’ll do when the machine is finished, and his plans are downright domestic: “I’d like to work on having a family,” he says. “Find a wife and have some babies.”
But then his eyes brighten as he revises that future in his mind. “Although I do have another machine I’d like to build…” He describes a huge, cat-like device that you’d ride in a prone position. As he talks, I try to imagine the ideal world of Jonathan Tippett: kissing his family goodbye as he leaves in the morning to work on giant mechs for a professional robot racing league – just another day at the office.
Watch a video showing the ins and outs of the Alpha leg
2. Motorised electric longboard
Sanjay Dastoor, Matt Tran, John Ulmen; Sunnyvale, California
Leave it to a Silicon Valley-based Californian to mechanise a longboard. John Ulmen built a prototype board with a lithium-ion battery, onboard computer and lightweight brushless motors in May 2011 while he was still a mechanical engineering student at Stanford. Later that year, he joined forces with fellow students Matt Tran and Sanjay Dastoor to create Boosted.
“Everyone needs to get around, and there’s something pure and simple about a longboard,” Ulmen says. The team raised R4,6 million using Kickstarter; production units should be available within a few months.
See the Boosted longboard in action
3. Flying remote control car
Witold Mielniczek; Southampton, UK
“The problem with cars is that they’re only as good as the roads they drive on,” says Witold Mielniczek, a doctoral student in computational engineering and design at the University of Southampton. Full-size vehicles will remain trapped on bad roads for some time, but thanks to Mielniczek, toys now have a more uplifting alternative. His B flying car is a remote-controlled hybrid car-helicopter. He built a proof of concept with a polycarbonate chassis and 18 cm propellers inside each of its four 21 cm-diameter hubless wheels.
A single charge of B’s lithium-polymer battery delivers 15 minutes of combined driving-flying performance. With the flick of the controller’s toggle switch, B transitions from land cruising, where it tops out at around 29 km/h, to vertical take-off, up to 250 m in the air, with a maximum speed of about 40 km/h. An onboard HD camera records the entire journey. Mielniczek is currently awaiting a patent for B’s Propelling Driving Unit.
Watch as the B flying car transitions from land cruising to vertical take-off with ease.
4. Desktop milling machine
Danielle Applestone, Mike Estee, Forrest Green, Martine Neider, Jonathan Ward, Alana Yoel; San Francisco
The six-person team of engineers, designers and makers at Otherfab understand the importance of the right tools. They came together nearly two years ago to work on Mentor Makerspace, a DARPA-funded education programme that aimed to give thousands of high school shop classes access to the kinds of professional-grade machines, such as laser cutters and lathes, that are used in manufacturing worldwide.
Otherfab then set out to create the perfect starter CNC machine, the Othermill, a high-precision milling machine that runs on easy-to-use software. After budget cuts killed Mentor Makerspace, the team decided to spin off Othermill as a consumer product. They raised R3,1 million on Kickstarter in May and will eventually seek venture funding for their mill, which, at R150 000, is more affordable than competitors’ and also more versatile – it can mill out any material softer than stainless steel. “Othermill is a small-scale industrial tool,” Applestone says, “but it’s about as personal as it gets.”
5. Origami kayak
Anton Willis; San Francisco
A tiny apartment forced architect Anton Willis to say goodbye to his beloved 4,6 m kayak. Replacing it with a folding kayak (with a R20 000 to R50 000 price tag) would have blown his budget. Plus, he says, “the folding kayaks some of my friends had weren’t just expensive; they took up to an hour to put together, weighed 40 or 50 pounds, and felt flimsy”. In 2008, with a design inspired by origami, he set out to create his own. After 25 prototypes – the first sank in 30 seconds – Willis developed the Oru Kayak. The 3,65 m-long, 11 kg vessel is made of a single sheet of recyclable corrugated- plastic that folds out of (or into) a compact case in 5 minutes. Now Willis’s home project is a commercial product made in California. He and a small team started working on Oru Kayaks full-time in April 2012. They raised nearly R4,5 million on Kickstarter and shipped first-edition Oru Kayaks that June. Since then, his boat-that-fits-beneath-a-bed has boomed.
6. Northwoods planetarium
Frank Kovac; Rhinelander, Wisconsin
Beneath the balsam fir and birch trees of Wisconsin’s Northwoods sits the world’s largest mechanical-globe planetarium. In 1996, after clouds obscured his view of the sky through a telescope, paper mill clerk Frank Kovac set out to build what would become his home town’s top attraction.
“I knew I couldn’t afford a projection system, but I decided to build a dome out of wood and use glow-in-the-dark paint for the stars,” Kovac says. To show the night sky in different seasons, he equipped the dome with a Dayton 120-VAC 1/2-hp DC Gearmotor to make it revolve around the audience. Although operating the planetarium is now his full-time job, Kovac is still in awe: “I built my dream,” he says, “and I still can’t believe I got it to work.”
7. Bitcoin ATM
Josh Harvey, Zach Harvey, Matt Whitlock; Manchester, New Hampshire
Bitcoin, a digital, decentralised currency, is tough to get your hands on. First, you have to wire money from your account into a digital Bitcoin exchange, then wait for the transaction to go through; then you have to bid on the rapidly fluctuating virtual currency, then wait again. Finally, once your bid is accepted, a bitcoin will arrive in your cyber wallet.
Matt Whitlock and brothers Zach and Josh Harvey think the process should be simpler. “We want to make it really easy for the average user to get bitcoins,” Zach Harvey says. Specifically, they want to make it as easy as getting money from an ATM. The team worked with a product designer in Portugal to create the world’s first bitcoin ATM, a sheet-metal contraption that holds a Google Nexus 7 tablet and the same kind of banknote validator used in casinos. Scan your smartphone, insert some banknotes, and, voilà: you’ve instantly turned real cash into virtual money.
8. Bespoke vintage roadster
Blaine Dehmlow; Brentwood, California
When Blaine Dehmlow became general manager of TechShop San Francisco, he finally had the tools and community to turn his love of vintage race cars into something tangible. The gearhead designed his roadster with Autodesk CAD software, printed out patterns for each part, and cut them out using the workshop’s waterjet. After just a few months, he had an actual car, equipped with a Citroën chassis and a BMW R1150RT motorcycle engine.