A Peltier Module Temperature Chamber


One of our interns built a “hot box” out of wood a few years ago.  What’s a “hot box” you ask?   Beyond something you’d find in a Paul Newman prison flick,  its pretty much a poor man’s temperature chamber. Except the temperatures only go up from ambient.  I’ve been surprised how often we use it, and how well it has held up, considering it was put together with wire-wrap and  off-the-shelf development boards.  But I’ve decided to take that old axiom “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” and throw it out the window.

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Robot Wheel Design


Robot wheel controller and mechanical progression.

I’ve spent a lot of my spare lab time messing around with a robot wheel mechanical concept, and an electronic design that controls a pair of DC motors and 4 RC servos.  Here’s an update.

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Creating a Ponoko 2D Laser Cut Project with SketchUp


Creating a Ponoko 2D laser cut project in ShetchUp is easy, but takes a couple of steps.  SketchUp is great for creating 3D objects, but Ponoko (a fabrication service) doesn’t accept its files for 2D laser cuts.

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A new industrial robot reimagines factory automation

Rethink Robotics has a new industrial robot that may end up being a game changer in the way people think of factory automation.  IEEE has a good article on the new robot.   There are a few points in the article that I think are really important to focus on:

  • The robot has a $22,000 list price
  • The robot weighs 165 pounds and is sized about the size of a typical man
  • The robot does not have excessive “robot” strength – it has “human-scale” strength
  • The robot can be programmed by just moving the robots arms around, not by a programming language
  • The robot provides feedback and “humanity” with an LCD face

The material cost of this robot is achieved by using new manufacturing techniques and by some clever programming. The mechanics of the robot are “sloppy” by conventional standards, but the robot uses relative measurements and continuous self-calibration to keep operating “in-spec”. This allows the robot to made with less expensive parts.

From here it is easy to see the space that this robot can really be a game-changer:  micro, small, and medium manufacturing.  With the intuitive programming procedure (basically just move the robot arms around, showing it the motions you want repeated), non-imposing size, and non-threatening strength, the robot can fit seamlessly into the lowest-tech enterprises.  At $22,000, the robot costs a company about 40% of a typical employee for a year.  Because of this and the short learning curve for programming, more Mom and Pop enterprises would be better served with one of these devices instead of an employee.  For repetitive tasks, the decision would be a no-brainer.  This is like the Chinese noodle robot I highlighted a few weeks ago – a human-scaled robot that can be used front and center in a small shop.

This robot really seems to be game changer and I can’t wait to see what small manufacturing looks like in the next five years.

SketchUp Robot Designs


SketchUp is great for robot designs. It’s also  a free and easy to use tool.  SketchUp was Google’s drawing software, but was recently purchased by Trimble.  You can learn more about this software product at this web site.  Last weekend I downloaded the free version and watched about an hour’s worth of YouTube videos detailing the basic tools the software provides.   It didn’t take long to figure out the basics, but I’m still just scratching the surface of this useful tool.

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An Even Better Solar Demonstration Project

A month ago I talked about our next solar demo project.  After a month’s reflection, I’ve decide that one is not grandiose enough, so onto the next one.  That’s right a solar powered airplane, where there is no margin for error.  Just today the plane flew across the Mediterranean Sea from Spain to Morocco.  One beguiling aspect of the trip is that it took off in the dark and will land in the dark.  That’s right, a purely solar plane is running on battery power!  I am not sure if the plane is like a glider and can fly without power, but flying a solar plane in the dark seems more dangerous than flying a fuel-powered plane in the dark.  It is not readily apparent from the picture below, but the wingspan on this thing is huge.  Check out some more pictures of it here to get a sense of scale.

The designers are gunning for an around-the-world trip in 2014 with a new and improved plane.  They started work on this in 2003.  I think if we start working right now, we should be able to beat them to the punch by a couple of months.  We just need to learn:  aeronautical engineering, piloting, aerial navigation, composite manufacturing, and advanced battery technology.  On second thought, maybe we can’t get it done that quick.

Robot zoo animals

Wired magazine has a neat article about robots that derive their form and function from the animal kingdom.  I particularly like the robot dog developed by DARPA.  I think that it is neat that the engineers have looked at the natural world and the millions of years that evolution has used to winnow down a great design.  Sometimes the answers to problems are right in front of our face (or heeling by our side), if we just look.

My oldest boy has been hinting around about getting a new dog.  I am not sure if he would be happy if I brought home one of these though. . .


The Next Stuxnet

The computer worm Stuxnet entered the computer virus scene in 2010, although early versions of the software may have been released in 2009.  It was unique in both its complexity and the fact that it targeted specific industrial control systems.  The malware appears to be finely tuned to target Siemens industrial controllers by subverting programming software applications through the Windows operating system.  It was the first computer virus detected that targeted programmable logic controllers.  Kaspersky Lab concluded that due to its targeting and complexity it was likely developed with resources available to a nation state.  Stuxnet seemed designed to target Iran’s uranium enrichment equipment.

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Another good example of design

A while back, we started showing off interesting design that does not necessarily fall into the electronics/robotics/embedded-design sphere.  I will continue in the same vein and add to the series.  Here  (You Tube video) is another good example of this.  Basically, an architect in Hong Kong took an approximately 300 square foot “tenement” apartment and converted it into a “luxury” living space.  The walls, furniture, and fixtures in the rectangular-shaped room, move around to give extra functionality.  I really like that the kitchen and bath-tub can be hidden from view.  I note that the plumbing dependent features (sink, toilet, tub), do NOT move; they are merely hidden by other walls and furniture.  If the plumbing moved, I would have moved from impressed to flabbergasted.  I also really like the full window at one end that lets in light all day.  I am not sure how I feel about the mirrored ceiling though – that seems a touch too “70s  key-party” for me.  All in all, the is a pretty good example of engineering trade-offs and compromise can still result in a solid design.