• Backyard genius 2011

    The EX tricycle has a custom-made frame and chain-drive system, but it is powered by two ordinary 18-volt drill drivers.
    Date:3 October 2011 Tags:, , , , , , ,

    The most animatronic, ecological, microscopic, hydraulic, rhythmic, jet-powered, home-brewed, jury-rigged, highly flammable, robotic, oddball creations of the year.By David Coburn

    Throwing down the gauntlet
    Easton LaChappelle Age: 15

    Put away your baking soda volcano – this kid built an animatronic hand. For his high school science fair project, Easton LaChappelle studied anatomical drawings to better understand finger joints and movement, then created a wirelessly controlled mechanical hand. The fingers are constructed of flexible wire tubing; the “wrist” is reinforced with Lego bricks. Fishing wire runs through the tubing from the fingertips to five independent servos, providing the hand’s motion. Next, LaChappelle sewed flex sensors into a standard athletic glove and wired them up to a custom Arduino controller board and shield. The shield sends wireless signals to a receiver on the animatronic hand. The whole setup works without a computer interface and costs only around R2 500. “Some strength is lost because of the materials I used,” LaChappelle says, “but I can pick up a full can of soda with it.”

    Watch a video of LaChappelle explaining the workings of his wireless animatronic hand

    Bongo suit
    Lucas Werthein Age: 26 Kyle McDonald Age: 26

    Lucas Werthein lives in Brooklyn, New York, but his thoughts are never far from the rhythms of his native Brazil. A chance encounter in January allowed him to jump back into its music.

    Werthein, a graduate of the interactive telecommunications programme at New York University, was visiting friends back home when he met the legendary percussionist Carlinhos Brown. Brown, who comes from Salvador in Bahia, was to perform at Salvador’s Carnival in March, and wanted something to amaze the thousands in attendance. Werthein had just the idea.

    He and his collaborator, Kyle McDonald, designed a full bodysuit with 10 embedded piezoelectric drum pads. “Carlinhos would hit his body to describe the sounds he was looking to reproduce,” Werthein says, “so a suit made sense.” As Brown played in front of 100 000 people, the suit – called EletroAxé, for an electronic form of the Bahian musical style – wirelessly transmitted the sounds of traditional Brazilian percussion instruments (bacurinhas, surdos), as well as a few non-traditional ones (lasers, bomb explosions).

    Watch a video showing how the electronic interactive percussion suit was made, and how it works.

    Circular logic
    Brian “Ziggy” Liloia Age: 27

    Four years ago, Brian Liloia moved to the country to master the art of building with cob, an ancient combination of clay, sand and straw. The incredibly strong material is perfect for creating sustainable architecture. Cob is even mashed by foot. “I knew it was going to be a lot of work,” Liloia says, “but I really wanted the knowledge that comes from doing something with your own hands and feet.”

    Soon he and girlfriend April Morales were stomping cob to build their first home: an 18-squaremetre hut. The crowning touch was a reciprocal roof made with 28 black locust and oak poles. The radially arranged poles support, and are supported by, each other – no internal columns required. In the centre, a tractor tyre frames a pair of polycarbonate sheets to form a skylight. Total cost, including the later mudroom addition and a new stove? About R25 000. “When I first told my family I wanted to live here, they were flabbergasted – but now that they’ve seen the house, they realise the value in it,” Liloia says. He pauses. “But my mom probably still thinks it’s a little weird.”

    Pinewood Derby car
    Brad Collette, Age 44

    The Pinewood Derby concept grew out of a racing event in which US Cub Scouts build wooden race cars with the help of parents (see www.pinewoodderby.org). Brad Collette had built a half-dozen Pinewood Derby cars with his two Scouting sons when he began to wonder why the boys should have all the fun. “A few of the dads got competitive, so we started an open class with no rules so that we could race, too,” Collette says. “Anything goes, so long as it’s not combustible.”

    He used CAD software to design a six-part housing that attaches to a conventional Pinewood car block, then printed it using a MakerBot desktop 3D printer. A spring-loaded triggering mechanism pierces a pair of CO2 canisters like the firing pins on a double-barrelled shotgun, releasing jets of CO2 that provide outlandish thrust. When Collette set the car loose for its first run, it ripped off 11 metres in 1,6 seconds. A typical derby car makes the run in about 3 seconds.

    Problem is, the car doesn’t just race, it takes off. Sometimes literally. The jolt from the CO2 kicks the back wheels loose, he says, and can send the racer rocketing into other cars – or the stands. For next year’s dads-only races, Collette is planning a redesign.

    Electron-gun show
    Ben Krasnow Age: 29

    Ben Krasnow designs fMRI machine components, so he knows about complex electronics. But the most impressive engineering he’s pulled off is the scanning electron microscope (SEM) in his garage. “I’ve never taken on a project like this before,” he says. “I decided I wanted to learn more about particle physics.”

    Krasnow is a dedicated tinkerer with a talent for getting high-tech parts on the cheap. The electron gun, electronic lenses, electrostatic deflection plates, phosphor screen and photomultiplier he used to create his SEM were all sourced from industrial supply houses and eBay for around R10 000. Since electron microscopy requires a vacuum, a glass bell jar covers the entire apparatus and is sealed to the bottom plate. But once you have your own electron microscope, what do you do with it? Krasnow’s SEM has a resolution of about 5 micrometres, roughly one-tenth the diameter of a human hair. He has used the apparatus to look at watch parts, circuit boards and other intricate tiny wonders, and has posted the images on his blog, but he doesn’t seem to have any sort of microscopic agenda in mind. “It’s not like I really have an application for electron microscopes,” he says. “Most of my projects get built, live a couple of months and then get taken apart and made into something else.”

    Wireless marionettes
    Taylor Veltrop Age: 29

    Sure, Microsoft’s Kinect camera array is great for playing Dance Central on the Xbox 360, but for robotics hackers like Taylor Veltrop, Kinect is a cheap motion-capture device that offers dizzying DIY possibilities. “When the Kinect came out, I already had the hardware system ready to interface with it,” he says. “I just needed to write some software glue to get its skeleton data into my robot’s joint data.” Veltrop, a Chicago native now living in Tokyo, uses the Kinect’s skeleton-tracking capabilities along with two Wii remotes and a laptop to wirelessly animate his Aldebaran and Kondo kit robots with his body movements. The system is impressively accurate – Veltrop’s robots can arrange flowers and even cut fruit.

    Taylor Veltrop entered the freestyle competition at RoboGames 2011. Using the Kinect, his two robots danced simultaneously under his control. Watch the video

    Auto-brewski
    Matt “Zizzle” Pratt Age: 32

    Matt Pratt loves beer. He blogs about it and has studied its ingredients, so naturally, he took up home brewing. But Pratt hit a few snags: “Using a manual brew process was taking forever. I was setting timers for the different stages – and I’d still half-boil something 40 minutes longer than I should have,” he says. “I thought, maybe I need a computer to do it.”

    Soon, Pratt – who goes by the handle Zizzle online – came across the Renesas RX MCU Design Competition, encouraging hackers to incorporate microcontrollers into their DIY projects. So he created Brewbot, an automated machine that imports recipes directly from the open-source Brewtarget application, then fills its kettle, mixes in the grains and maintains temperature and water levels for the mash. “Once, I accidentally sent 12 volts into the system and blew up the Renesas board, but outside of that, the main components worked pretty much straight off the bat,” Pratt says. “It makes lots less things we don’t want to drink.”

    Check out Matt Pratt’s video entry into the Renesas RX Design Contest, where he explains how he brews beer using Brewbot.

    Drill driver
    Sebastian Auray, Ruben Faber, Nils Ferber, Ludolf von Oldershausen

    Moving at 30 km/h doesn’t sound so harrowing – but if you’re driving the EX – a tricycle designed by an obsessive team of students at the University of Fine Arts of Hamburg, Germany – 30 km/h seems more than fast enough.

    Perhaps that’s because the EX positions its driver so he’s sprawled out on his belly on top of the threewheeled vehicle, with his face the fi rst point of contact for any oncoming traffi c. A specially designed CNCmilled joint tilts the back wheel to let the rider lean into turns. Modifi ed bicycle parts were used for most of the components – and the trike is powered by nothing but a pair of batteryoperated Bosch drill drivers. The 18volt power tools crank the chain ring in the same direction for maximum, if modest, power; to avoid one drill driver blocking the other, overrunning clutch gearwheels are used to transmit the torque. “The torque you get from a screwdriver is pretty small,” Nils Ferber says. “But we wanted the vehicle to look as aggressive and energetic as possible.”

    The design team drew inspiration, he says, from the skeletal structure of a big cat ready to pounce, though he agrees that this is one skeleton perhaps best left in the closet – or at least the workshop. Fully charged drill drivers poop out after a few minutes, giving the rig a maximum range of a couple of kilometres and making it about the least practical electric vehicle ever. But for those few minutes? “It’s exciting and fun to drive,” Ferber says. “Being that close to the ground and lying on the vehicle headlong, I’m almost glad that I can’t go faster than 30 km/h.”

    Scorched-earth artwork
    Justin Gray Age: 35

    Libby, a 2-metre-tall robot, charges across a small backyard in Oakland, California, with all the enthusiasm of a household pet – only Libby is capable of spitting fl ames that could burn down the neighbourhood. Such is life at home for Justin Gray, a mechanical whiz who builds electric cars and motorcycles, welds metal sculptures and creates remote-controlled fi re-breathing robots that he shows off at festivals around the world. “Each of these robots takes on a personality of its own,” Gray says. “Libby is a sculpture I did after my dog died, and there’s something in there that really personifi es my dog’s attitude.”

    The artist says he tries to take a month each year to disappear into his 400-square-metre workshop, where he can “just hide from the world and build a robot”.

    In the ranks of Gray’s mobile art, Libby has joined Boris, an elephantine contraption built on the chassis of a trenching machine that lifts its digging chain like a trunk and exhales methanol and propane; Charlie, a robot with a head shaped like that of the creature from Alien; and Darwin, an electric track-driven crustacean that packs so much power, the robot can perform track burnouts. “I want to elevate the audience to a level of discomfort and awe,” Gray writes on his blog. “When I walk through a gallery, it takes a constant effort to be interested in work hung on the walls. Art to me is alive and breathing down your neck.”

    Sinking kitchen island
    Tim Thaler Age: 30

    Soon after moving into his house, computer programmer Tim Thaler made renovations most people would never notice. He installed hanging lamps that retract into the bedroom ceiling. He made an RFID-triggered secret door in his basement that leads to his tinkerer’s den. In that room he installed his latest home improvement: an iPhone-controlled retractable kitchen island that lifts directly up to the level of the cooking space above. “We wanted to remodel the kitchen, but the new appliances meant less cupboard space,” Thaler says, “and a big island made the room feel small”.

    Thaler bought a hydraulic scissor lift off eBay and bolted it to the concrete fl oor. The lift travels only a metre – so on top, he constructed a frame from 50 x 100 posts that brings the island level with the kitchen counters. Finally, he wired digital switches that hoist the island with the touch of a button. “That was the easy part,” he says. “The hard part was telling my wife, ‘You’re getting a new kitchen! But by the way . . .’ ”

    Watch a video showing Tim Thaler’s iPhone-controlled retractable kitchen island rising up to counter height.