2009 Backyard genuis awards

  • Minimalist robot
  • Home built Batman tumbler
  • Off-road rover
  • 2009 Backyard genuis awards
  • Fuel mill
Date:30 September 2009 Tags:, , , , ,

To create an incredibly cool car-crusher or oversize rocket or solar-pedal-powered contraption that the world had no idea it needed takes brilliance, determination and a healthy dose of crazy.  e winners of our Backyard Genius Awards have all those qualities, and we salute them for it.

Firmest handshake Grand champion

Car-crushing mechanical claw Our top prizewinner spent years dreaming of the perfect way to crush cars by hand. In 2007, Christian Ristow, an artist and former animatronics designer for the movie industry, demonstrated his first working incarnation of the Hand of Man at a robotics festival in Amsterdam. Much of his time since then has been spent re-engineering and refining the design of the 9-metre hydraulically actuated appendage, exhibiting more and more capable crushers at a series of public venues. Ristow’s latest mechanical steel limb has 90-degree wrist rotation and improved mobility in the finger joints. It is powered by a 67-kw Perkins 1104C-44T four-cylinder diesel engine and is controlled through a glove worn by the operator. At demonstrations, that operator is usually a random member of the audience. “I’ve built other large-scale radio-control robots for shows over the years, but I always felt like I was the one having the most fun,” Ristow says. “This democratises the crushing power.”

Man behind the machine

Name: Christian Ristow
Age: 39
Location: Taos, New Mexico
The trouble with Muppets: Ristow once built puppets for Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, but was disappointed by the company’s “antimechanical bias”.

Most animated servos

Minimalist robot

I-Wei Huang animates video games for a living, but he spends his free time animating metal and plastic. His first creations were a series of steam-powered remote-control machines, including mini tanks, a rowing boat and a version of Star Wars’ R2-D2 that Huang named R2-S2 (the S is for steam). But after more than 20 steambots, Huang changed direction to create mechanical creatures of a totally different character. “Coming from the animation background, I wanted something with personality that I could bring to life,” he says. Huang’s more recent creations, called SwashBots, are built around parts that control the pitch of radio-controlled helicopter blades. The minimalist robots run on AA batteries and have three servomotors to control the legs and a fourth to move the head. The stutter-stepping little bots squeeze maximum charm out of minimum complexity.

Man behind the machine
Name: I-Wei Huang
Age: 37
Location: Dixon, California.
SwashBot’s first steps:
“I didn’t know it would be able to walk like that,” Huang says. “I would have been satisfied if it just leaned from side to side. When I saw it turn and shuffle, it made me smile like a toddler.”

Best school project Solar quadricycle

David Dixon worked for a year on his eighth-grade project, the Solar Human Hybrid quadricycle. The junior-high-schooler and his father, also named David, drew on their background in alternative energy – the family had previously lived on a yacht with solar panels and a wind turbine – to create a vehicle that runs on sunshine and sneaker power. Starting with an obscure four-seat Swiss bike called a ZEM, they figured out how to add solar panels and an electric motor. “Dad taught me about amp-hours, volts, watts, batteries and all the electronics we were using,” the son says. The SOHH qualifies as a motorised bicycle; following road transportation guidelines, the Dixons equipped it with a 0,75-kW motor and geared the bike not to exceed 29 km/h at full throttle. The project earned the creative teen national publicity and invitations to multiple tech festivals. But his teacher gave him only a B. We’re not grade grubbers, but c’mon!

Kid behind the machine

Name: David Dixon Age: 14
Location: Novato, California
Room for five: The SOHH quadricycle has seating for four humans and one dog – the dog is not required to pedal.

Gnarliest knock-off

Homebuilt Batman tumbler

Batman begins, but Bob Dullam continues. The 57-year-old sculptor was so inspired by the Tumbler Batmobile from the fifth movie in the modern franchise that he built a full working replica in his garage in Kalamazoo, Michigan. “Other people build sports cars,” Dullam says, “but I wasn’t that interested in a Corvette. I like Batman – and the only way to get this car was to build it myself.” Basing his work on hundreds of fan photos found online, and the extra features from the Batman Begins DVD, Dullam fabricated a steel chassis and created body plates from epoxy reinforced with glass fibre matte. Dullam’s Tumbler is 5 metres long, 1,5 metres high and 3 metres wide at the rear. The 2 300-kg vehicle uses a 350 Chevy V8 HO Deluxe to spin its 112 cm Super Swamper tyres. Dullam estimates he’s spent around half a million rand on the car – and happily says it’s not for sale.

Man behind the machine

Name: Bob Dullam
Age: 57
Location: Kalamazoo, Michigan
Why done is a state of mind: Next, Dullam will add the internal Batpod from The Dark Knight – and maybe pyrotechnics. “I haven’t got flames shooting out the back yet,” he says.

Craftiest raft

Mississippi skimmer

Inspired by a hydrofoil he saw on the cover of POPULAR MECHANICS more than 40 years ago, Gary Sloat built one of his own: a 2,4- metre foam-and-plywood boat he calls the Dragonfl y. The pine foils, which hold riders half a metre off the water, are joined with biscuits and reinforced with epoxy and glass fibre cloth. With its original motor, the Dragonfly topped out at 40 km/h. But it turns out 40 was plenty fast considering that the throttle on the antique 1947 7,5 kW outboard Mercury Hurricane had a habit of sticking whenever Sloat had the boat pointed toward shore. A new 7 kW motor is proving to be far more controllable – still, Sloat’s family prefers to let him ride atop the waters of the Mississippi alone. “I’ve got daughters who are 10 and 5,” he says, “and my wife’s not interested in submitting them to dad’s deathtraps.”

Man behind the machine

Name: Gary Sloat
Age: 48
Location: Davenport, Iowa
Rap sheet: Police shut down Sloat’s initial test run at the nearby Sunset Marina. “I got pulled over for making waves in a no-wake zone,” he says. “Clearly, the Dragonfly worked.”

Best Mobile Device

Off-road rover

Roger Fontaine lives with his parents north of Houston. Muscular dystrophy has left him with only limited movement in his feet, right hand and neck. He devours science TV programmes and technical magazines, and was eager to develop a way to be more mobile outdoors. He and his father, Roger senior, who repairs heavy equipment for a construction firm, designed and built the joystick-controlled “Gecko” articulating ATV. The four-wheel-drive vehicle is built around a pair of beefy transaxles the younger Fontaine found on the Internet, and a 16-kW Briggs & Stratton V-twin engine. Then they added a hinge in the middle that aff ords the Gecko a 66-cm turning radius, a third as big as many other ATVs. “We wanted him to be able to go around trees,” Roger says, “but sometimes the ground is uneven, and we needed all four wheels on the ground all the time.” They also added a hitch to hook up small yard equipment to the Gecko – because, unlike many guys, the younger Fontaine actually likes mowing the lawn.

Man behind the machine

Names: Roger Fontaine Jr and Sr
Ages: Dad, 62; son, 29
Location: Splendora, Texas
MythBuster take: Adam Savage dedication to his son. “Plus,” he says, “the vehicle is really cool.”

Biggest booster

Saturn V rocket replica

Just before 1 pm on Saturday, April 25, 2009, a Saturn V rocket carried one more man into history. Steve Eves broke a slew of world records when his 1:10 scale model of the historic rockets that launched the Apollo missions lifted off from a field on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The 11-metre rocket that Eves built in his garage near Akron, Ohio, was the largest model rocket ever launched. At 748 kg, it was also the heaviest privately funded hobby rocket ever launched and the heaviest ever to be successfully recovered. It drew a crowd estimated at 5 000 – the largest ever to witness a hobby rocket launch. Eves’s singlestage behemoth was constructed of aircraft-grade plywood and lauan plywood coated in glass fibre and powered by nine motors – eight 13 000 newton-second N-Class motors and a 77 000 newton-second P-Class motor. All told, the array generated 7 g’s at lift-off and sent Eves’s Saturn V 1 353 metres into the air. “I didn’t start out to break records,” the 51-year-old car body repair specialist says. “I had just been working away – and then one day I realised no one’s ever pulled this off before.”

Man behind the machine

Name: Steve Eves
Age: 51
Location: Uniontown, Ohio
Where to see it: Nasa plans to display his rocket at the US Space and Rocket Centre in Huntsville, Alabama, beneath an original Saturn V.

Grooviest toolbot

Walking robot router

Matt Denton's company, Micromagic Systems, has built six-legged, insectlike bots for the movies (his creations have appeared in multiple Harry Potter films). But in his spare time he experiments with… more six-legged robots. In a fl ash of ingenuity, the London-based robotics engineer recently turned a small hexapod robot into a walking, computer-controlled milling machine. When fed instructions over a wireless Bluetooth connection, the dinner-plate-sized bot with a drill bit for a head saunters over to a block of polystyrene and begins to methodically carve 3D shapes into the material. So far, the little robot specializes in sculpting human faces. Currently the router takes 1.8-inch bits, but Denton is working on a 3-mm version; he's also hoping to beef up the bit's vertical travel, which is currently limited by the servo to somewhere between 40 and 50 mm. "I've had some companies approach me for practical applications of the robot," he says, "but I never made it with a practical application in mind. It was just a case of 'why the hell not?'"

Man behind the machine

Name: Matt Denton
Age: 36
Location: Winchester, Hampshire, UK.
MythBuster take: “It can in theory make large fixed CNC machines obsolete,” Jamie Hyneman says. “The concept is hugely powerful when you think about it.”

Slickest slalom

Uphill racer

A lifelong downhill skier and industrial mechanic/millwright, Jim Maidment was frustrated by the fact that he could pursue his favourite pastime only near a chair lift. “When you’re on a slope, all that energy is free – as long as you’re going in that one direction,” he says. So Maidment hacked together a 5-kW generator engine with a small, off -the-shelf snowmobile track from Bombardier, inventing a machine he calls the Skizee. He then headed for the mountains to refi ne his creation, moving from Ontario to Kimberley, British Columbia, Canada’s second-loftiest city. So far, he’s decreased the size and added a variable torque converter to change the power ratio and climb hills. His latest Skizee can go 20 km/h uphill and can reach 40 in fl at powder. Maidment continues to test his invention in the snowy woods around his home, and he’s making fi nal tweaks to the design now.

Man behind the machine

Name: Jim Maidment
Age: 47
Location: Kimberley, British Columbia
Quick fix: The Skizee has been simplified so that spare parts can always be carried by the rider. Says Maidment: “Th is better be easy to fi x when I’m 10 miles into the woods.” The Skizee is powered by a 5-kW generator engine. Handlebars retract, then fold to make the Skizee small enough to fit in the back of a pickup. By pushing rather than pulling the skier, the Skizee allows its operator to steer with his skis.

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