In honour of the magnificent creative spirit that inhabits our world, we present you with our annual list of the most useful, outrageous, ambitious and, yes, electrifying amateur engineering projects we could find. Are some of them a little odd? Happily, yes…
Rob Flickenger, Seattle
This self-proclaimed mad scientist turned a Nerf gun into the ultimate sci-fi sidekick. “Not long ago, I picked up (the graphic novel) The Five Fists of Science, all about Nikola Tesla and Mark Twain battling the evil Thomas Edison,” Flickenger says. “Tesla carries these steampunk guns that fire lightning bolts – I had to have one.”
Charles Guan, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Think of it as bringing horsepower to the people. On a whim last year, the MIT masters student built a mini go-kart – or Chibikart – with custom-machined hub motors and a massive 33-volt lithium-ion battery. Amateur builders cheered the accomplishment online – and then furrowed their collective brow.
“People were dismissing it as a privileged college kid project,” Guan says. “So I decided to make a democratised version.” Powered by a pair of standard 12-volt lithium iron phosphate batteries, the two-wheel-drive Chibikart 2 roams the school hallways on 10 cm rubber tyres. The twin 0,75 kW drive motors were designed for RC model aircraft. “They’re some of the best power-to-weight-ratio parts available for any kind of propulsion,” Guan says. The 16 kg chariot stops thanks to brakes fashioned mostly from stock bicycle parts. Top speed? About 35 km/h, which means Guan may want to think about buying himself a helmet.
Laser To Go
Jessie Tank, Anchorage, Alaska
Not long ago, Jessie Tank, who manages a computer shop, found herself reflecting on the CO2 laser she had cobbled together with her father in high school. Before she knew it, she was re-creating the experience in her dining room. Her new laser uses a mixture of CO2, nitrogen and helium sealed in a 13 mm glass tube from a neon-sign shop. The gases are excited by electricity from a 400-watt variable transformer connected to an amp meter and mounted in a plastic toolbox.
When the gas molecules collide, they release a beam of infrared light that bounces off two gold-and-zinc mirrors before zipping off in search of something to set on fire. “It’s not strong enough to cut steel,” Tank says of the beam, “but it’s certainly enough to burn wood or paper. Or ignite gun powder – although I try to be considerate of the neighbours.”
Homemade Seismology Lab
Steve Jones, Huntsville, Alabama
On Alabama’s earthquake-tracking Web page, you’ll fi nd data from the state’s offi cial monitoring stations. Only one – the AlabamaQuake amateur seismic station – reports on the tremors from Steve Jones’s basement. Ten years ago, the Nasa engineer built his first seismometer: a Shackleford–Gundersen horizontal model. It was a fine place to start but nothing compared with his Inyo Force Balance Broadband Vertical seismometer.
Machined from aluminium and brass, the device sits in a hermetically sealed pressure case with a thermal cover because the pendulum is so sensitive, the heat from a torch beam will set it off. “I can tell when the ground here moved 3 millimetres,” Jones says. “We don’t feel it, but it’s fascinating to know when Huntsville shifts because of a quake in Japan.”
Arthur Wait, Menlo Park, California
Let’s face it: It’s hard to broadcast yourself on YouTube when you’re a one-man band. Who’s going to hold the camera? Well, why not let Arthur Wait answer that for you. “YouTube has become more TV for me than TV is,” says the software developer, who won the grand prize in Microsoft’s Robotics @ Home Challenge. “There’s a ton of great stuff there. It’s a shame it’s not always shot very well.”
With that in mind, the amateur photographer took a Parallax Eddie robot, a Kinect sensor and Microsoft’s Robotics Developer Studio and invented a roving tripod – one that rolls right alongside you, tilting and panning in response to certain hand gestures. This makes filming slightly more adventurous, of course. (Wait’s walls have the nicks to prove it.) “But,” he says, “once you understand what you’re doing, you become a director.” Even better, in that acceptance speech on Oscar night, you have no one but yourself to thank. And please keep it short.
Golden Gate II
Larry Richardson, Mulvane, Kansas
On his way to Vietnam in 1968, Larry Richardson caught a glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge. Before shipping off, he picked up a postcard at the Army commissary. A year later, he returned home to Kansas. His wife, Barbara, put the postcard in a scrapbook, where it sat for 25 years – until the couple bought property with a stream.
Using the postcard as a reference, Richardson took posts salvaged from a bridge, and cables from a plane and an oil rig and set to work with his ageing father. “He and I had never been close,” he says. “This let us bond.” The 46 m replica took seven years, R32 000 and 88,4 tons of concrete to complete. In June, the retired postman boarded a plane for the first time since Vietnam. He returned to the Bay Area to show his wife his favourite landmark.
The Snooki Silencer
Matt Richardson, Brooklyn, New York
Blame it on Kim Kardashian. As TV coverage of the reality star’s impending nuptials reached a fever pitch, Matt Richardson, a graduate student in NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Programme, decided to do something about it. He could have simply turned off the TV, of course, but where’s the challenge in that?
Instead, he re-routed the broadcast signal from the cable box into his Enough Already device, where a code he wrote scanned the closed captioning for offending language. (For Richardson, it was “Kardashian”; “Red Sox,” “election” and “Miami cannibal” work just as well.) When the system spots the trigger term, an Arduino board activates an LED. The bulb flashes the signal for “mute” and – viola – you get cele-butante-free airtime for 30 seconds. “You could also flip it around,” Richardson says, “to turn the TV on if there’s something you do want to hear about.”
Matt Riese, San Francisco
If you’re going to take the time to build your own hovercraft, why not make it unique? After four years of effort, Matt Riese – a man of many odd jobs – is putting the finishing touches on this Back to the Future-inspired ride, fulfilling a DeLorean dream that began in middle school.
“I’d done home remodelling but never a project like this,” says the jack-of-all-trades. “When I stood back and looked at the first version, I realised I’d just kind of powered through it. So I decided to rebuild one part, then another. By the end, I’d rebuilt almost everything.” Based on Universal Hovercraft’s UH-13PT Twin Trainer, Riese’s silver star is sculpted from foam insulation covered in glass fibre. The doors and frame are reinforced with wood and aluminium. A lift motor inflates the air cushion, and a 12 kW horizontal-shaft engine at the rear stands in for “Doc” Brown’s flux capacitor.
The thing can easily ferry two people across flat land, but Riese didn’t stop there: he made his DeLorean seaworthy, too. Registered with the California DMV as a boat (it’s not street-legal), the craft can travel close to 72 km/h. That doesn’t compete with Marty McFly’s 141 km/h, but it’s plenty fast for a vehicle with no brakes.
Super Soaker Squirrel-Repellent System
Kurt Grandis, Chapel Hill, New Connecticut
He never planned to start a war. “I was playing around with Computer Vision to make a bird detector that could monitor what came to the feeder in our backyard,” Kurt Grandis says. But what came was squirrels. So, using a webcam and the recognition program, the software engineer conceived a tech-savvy solution to an age-old nuisance.
First, he taught his laptop to identify and target each large, grey, fuzzy blob. Then he linked the computer to a Super Soaker mounted on a surveyor’s tripod. After that, it was simply a matter of placing the gun near the bird feeder and firing away. “The only problem,” Grandis says, “was that the squirrels were so active, they quickly drained the reservoir.” No matter. Grandis and his family have since shifted the battlefield to a new home. “Now the problem is deer,” he says. “I’m going to have to change things up a bit.”
Galactic Flight Trainer
John Boyer, Joseph DeRose, Sam DeRose, Sam Frank, Alex Jacobson; San Rafael, California
Ages: 8th grade to high school senior.
Don’t be deceived by those boyish smiles. These guys may look like plebes, but they’re veteran hackers. Just ask the folks at Maker Faire. “We spent eight months on this project,” Sam DeRose says. “But it was only recently that we looked back and said, ‘Oh my God, that really worked’.”
Built inside a Piper Cherokee fuselage scavenged for R3 200, the DIY flight simulator is modelled on the Colonial Viper aircraft from Battlestar Galactica. It has three screens that run the open-source FlightGear program. The Bay Area students wired the joystick-controlled software into 0,7 kW motors on the platform, allowing for 360-degree motion on the pitch and the roll axes. The five teens paid for the R&D with a Kickstarter campaign. “We play video games and that kind of stuff,” says Sam, who will soon begin his studies at Harvey Mudd College. “But for me, being out in the garage building things is just something I have to do.”