Friday, November 28, 2008

Is This Blog Dead?

I'm sure everyone who has looked in on this blog is wondering if it's been forgotten. The answer is no, not forgotten. I haven't been doing much robotics at home lately. I've been doing some robotics with a high school robotics team. So there may not be any significant activity for awhile, but I promise I'll be back from time to time.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Oh, yeah...

Did I mention that the pictures are fixed?

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Trouble in picture-land

Still very little activity to blog, but I thought I ought to get on long enough to note that the pictures on this blog are broken. My fault. I changed providers and forgot to update the links. I'll get them back up soon. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Summer Break

Sorry I've not posted, but now summer's over and my focus is returning to robotics. Dragonfly, Wolfbait and I are working to expand the high school robotics program to include activities outside of the six week FIRST build season. Meanwhile, my BHAG is still out there. Look for some good stuff soon.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Reading Break

Progress on the BHAG has slowed due to a number of factors: 1) I tried to put together a kit to do part of the job and the finished kit didn't work; 2) in an unrelated problem, the transmitter/receiver pair in my existing setup, which was working, stopped working; and 3) Easter.

So while waiting for some new parts to arrive and time to put them together when they did, I've been thinking about ways to learn more about robotics. Unfortunately there are a limited number of books about robotics, and only a few of those are available through my local library. So I have been looking for magazines on the subject. There are two magazines I know of focused primarily on robotics: "Servo" and "Robot". I've looked through one copy of each of these magazines so I can't say I have a really good feel for the tone of each. If anyone out there cares to comment with their observations, feel free.

Servo ( is put out by T&L Publications, who also produce "Nuts and Volts" about electronics. From what little I've read, there does seem to be some electronics emphasis in Servo, but overall it seems to be a pretty balanced package.

Robot ( is published by Maplegate, who also publishes "RC Driver" and "FlyRC". It appears to me to be a bit flashier, perhaps in part because its board includes Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman of MythBusters fame. This is a very new publication; currently issue #3 is on newsstands.

I should also mention a more general magazine of interest to technophiles: "Make" (, which is a project oriented publication for those who just want to build something cool.

Monday, March 27, 2006


As I mentioned, I've been rather busy lately and haven't had time to post. Fortunately, at least one of the things that has kept me from posting about robotics is robotics. Let me give you a first glimpse of my BHAG, my Big Hairy Audacious Goal. My BHAG is:

A Robotic Blimp!

My goal is to build a blimp with control system that can navigate around a room without human intervention. One of the principle goals is that the system be CHEAP. I am using commercially available parts wherever possible to reduce the amount of development I have to do. Here's what I've got so far.

The blimp platform is a toy blimp by Huan Qi, sold here in the US by Raiden Tech ( It's got two propellers which are driven by very small electric motors. The motors are mounted on a shaft which is also motorized to allow both motors to be tilted +/- 90 degrees. Each motor can be driven forward or reverse, so there are 6 possible commands for the transmitter to send to the blimp. The transmitter is powered by four AA batteries, and the blimp is powered by a capacitor which is charged using a plug built into the transmitter. $25 plus shipping.

To allow the blimp to be controlled from a PC, I used a commercially available I/O card and a simple home built board to connect the I/O card to the blimp transmitter board. The I/O card is the Elexol IO24, which I bought from Hobby Engineering ( The things I liked about this card are: it has a USB interface, it supports 24 pins of input/output, it was pretty cheap. $70 plus shipping.

To connect the IO24 to the transmitter required a set of transistors. I mounted them on a circuit board with a current limiting resistor and a pull-down resistor. Don't look too close at this board; it shows off my very poor soldering skills. Hey, I'm an aeronautical engineer, not an electrical. The transistors and resistors came from an assortment, so I could tell you the exact price, but certainly less than $15.

So that's the first phase of my project. The hardware is for this phase is together and tested. The software is mostly written and as an engineer, I'm proud to say that it is written in Fortran. Now on to the challenge: how will the blimp know where it is in the room?


For those of you who have read this blog back to its beginning, you may recall that the blog and our family's foray into robotics all started when my daughter, Dragonfly, got involved with her high school robotics team, which builds a robot for the FIRST robotics competition. Last year Dragonfly was deeply involved in the team, and Mermaldad got only slightly involved, helping the team solve some problems near the end of the build season and cheering for them at the regional competition.

This year we were involved once more, with Dragonfly just as busy and Mermaldad getting a little more involved, although work commitments kept him from being there as much as he'd have liked. Even Wolfbait got involved a little. Since he was still in middle school and thus not officially part of the High School Team, he was named a volunteer and enthusiastically admitted to the build sessions.

One of the things that I really like about FIRST is that it's not only about the robot. Sure, the robot is the most tangible product of the students' effort, but FIRST offers many awards for teams in a variety of areas. The highest award, considered even more prestigious than winning the competition itself is the Chairman's Award. The Chairman's Award goes to the team that "best exemplifies and demonstrates the values that FIRST emphasizes".

The FIRST world revolves around the concept of "gracious professionalism". We compete against the other teams, but they are not our rivals, they are our colleagues, and we treat them with respect and courtesy. Teams are encouraged to help each other out. In fact the structure of the competition, where each round is played 3 on 3, means that the team you played against last round may be the team that you play with the next.

Last year, when we went to our first FIRST Regional Competition, we had a pretty good idea what to expect from the game. What we didn't expect is the enthusiasm of the students. Teams had cheering squads, were dressed in wacky outfits, and brought along mascots. The announcers include a DJ who plays music all day long. It's a lot of fun to watch!

This year our team's robot didn't fare all that well in the standings. At the end of the competition we were ranked in the mid-30s out of 42 teams. This is slightly better than last year's performance, but I believe the robot was a much better machine. Our last 3 matches were plagued by a problem with the controller, something out of the team's control. It was disappointing, but all part of the competition. The really nice thing was that near the end of the competition, one of the sophomore students came to me and the team advisor and said (and I paraphrase), "We ought to divide the team up in two and have our own mini competition using all the parts from the last three years. I think we'll learn a lot from building more. I learned so much more this year, when I had to build stuff myself than last year when the seniors did everything." To me, that's what it's all about.

Not Dead Yet

It has been so long since the last post to this blog that even loyal readers may have concluded that it was dead. It has been sleeping quite soundly, but is not dead yet. A combination of Christmas activities, a major project at work for Mermaldad, the FIRST robotics build season and regional competition, and actual robotics work at home all contributed to our delinquency. Having reached a brief lull in these other activities, I'll try and catch up with a few posts.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Floatin' on Air

More true robotics coming up dear reader, but for now, a little technology-related diversion. Here's a picture of yours truly running an event for our engineering day for Young Astronaut Clubs. My professional society organizes this day every year. The event shown here was inspired by an experiment we did it physics lab back in college. The pipes are 1" PVC. Along the top are tiny holes, 1/4 inch apart. It's hooked up to an electric leaf blower. When the blower is turned on, it's like air hockey, except on a rail instead of a flat surface. The students' challenge was to make a sail powered vehicle to go down the rail as far and as fast as possible. It was a challenging task, but some of the teams did very well.