Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Asimov and the Slide Rule Boys

So I am re reading I Robot by Asimov as its a text on an open university module I'm doing. Its great fun revisiting this classic, I love Asimov and enjoy older science fiction as it's always interesting dipping into retro-futurism and comparing it to current technologies and trends.

The first few chapters are told as retrospective narratives by Susan Calvin regarding early issues with robotics.. she is telling stories in 2062 about things that happened to 2 roboticist trouble shooters around now/2017... and of course Asimov imagined this all before publishing in 1950.

So as well as reading what Asimov imagined the future would have created (positronic brains the big one in I Robot) it's interesting to see what technology available in the 1950's he imagined would still be in use in his future world. Enter 'the slide rule boys'. At numerous points the trouble shooting characters, Powell and Donovan, refer to the 'slide rule boys' meaning the engineers and physicists working for USRobotics creating the robots.... and yes.. it's sexist..I know.

For me (and I freely and proudly admit I am a slide rule fan who carries a slide rule every day) I love that Asimov considered the slide rule such an important device that it wouldn't be superseded by an imagined other technology, it is testimony to the device and its standing at the time in the 1950s. Although they have fallen out of popular use, falling prey to calculators and computers, they are fascinating devices and powerful tools for a variety of tasks to this day. The slide rule I carry everyday (as opposed to the larger ones for home use!!) is an Aristo nr89 which can calculate a surprising number of things by manipulating the slides, multiplication and division, tangents and sines, diagonals of squares, inch to mm conversions, circle areas and more and more. Interestingly for me slide rules also gave me a more concrete feel for logarithmic scales... and.. the Aristo 89 has a metric ruler on the edge so is quite handy for ..heck... drawing lines and measurements. :)

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Are makers a movement?

Image by Andrewrabbott - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43664330

So this post is a response to Adrians post .... short version.. we mostly agree!

As ever feel free to ignore.. although I get involved in maker stuff I don't spend much time thinking about the form it takes so others are much better informed than me and indeed my definitions may be well off the mark. However here is my two penneth worth!..

For me I prefer the term maker culture or maker scene as I feel there is a broad culture of people globally linked by making within which I feel there are movements. For me a movement is when a collection of bits come together to create a unified direction towards a common goal...like when 'movement' is used to describe the bits in a clock all working together to make the hands reflect the concept of time. So I think there are lots of movements within maker culture.. but not all makers would align with all movements. So for example;

I see a lot of movement around restart and repair, from the magnificent restart party through to Make's appropriation of the phrase “if you can't open it you don't own it”. This unifies a lot of makers, from circuit bending re-users, to people designing and making ethically sourced repairable embedded systems, to those coming up with ways to reuse plastic bottles.

I see movement around localised production/manufacturing with global design, the fablab idea etc. This movement has a lot going on in it but those makers immersed in areas with lots of manufacturing opportunities might not align with it as a movement as they don't see a need. For example I doubt I''d have thought about PCB fab houses and the ethics and complexity of making at home versus using a UK fab house or euro manufacturer or a far eastern company... if I was a maker based in Shenzen...whereas as a maker halfway up a mountain in rural North Wales I do!

Citizen science, lots of makers I know are involved in citizen science projects and this could be considered a movement within the maker scene, as could many other areas, crypto currency, OSS/FLOSS, renewables, energy monitoring, opendata ...I could go on and on..

However some people are makers purely out of an autodidactic playful trait, in that they tinker with arduinos/launchpads/espxxxx/picaxe/fpga or PCR/geneslicing or CNC/lasers/routers/3dprint or diyspace/satellites/radio/rockets or hand whittle a bowl/spoon just because they want to learn and play with no particular end goal or aim... and this is where making seems more flaneurial than a movement to me.

So why does this subject catch my attention, well the difficulty for me considering the whole of maker culture a movement, is that I feel it could alienate people.. I know plenty of makers who just make. I was chatting the other day with a person who was telling me about their model trains and how they had created a massive logic gate control system for it.... for their own pleasure.. I certainly class this person as an archetypal maker... but part of a movement?... I'm not sure. If movement and common aim becomes the core of maker culture.. do we not kill off its aimless wandering vagabond spirit of freedom?

Thanks for listening. :)

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

OpenRocket 3d print design tip!

So I'm working up some ideas for a high power rocket and aiming to go for my level 1 UKRA certification at some point next year. I'm planning to scratchbuild as much as possible which means it can be tricky to know the exact weights of items you are designing into the rocket.. such as the nosecone which I plan to 3d print.

 I can get a really accurate estimate of what a component is going to weigh by modelling the piece in CAD (I have some code I use in Openscad that generates nosecone geometries based on parameters I feed in) and exporting a .stl file as if I am going to print it.

I then load the stl into the slicer I would use to generate the gcode for my 3d printer "Cura". Rather wonderfully having selected the infill and the material, Cura will give me a weight value of the finished item. I can then jump back into OpenRocket and overide the mass of the component which is then incorporated into the design and adjusts the centre of gravity accordingly. Neat!

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Maker sustainability (or future risks to us doing cool stuff)

A few years ago I was asked to run a stall at a maker event attached to a model engineering exhibition in London. It was a fascinating experience as it linked 2 communities, the live steam/machining/model engineers and the 3dprinting/laser cutting/satellite amateurs etc. It proved to me how much value there is in bringing together these communities and how much we have to offer each other.

There are lots of themes that regularly get discussed around  how much knowledge transfer there is between different groups and its good to see some intergenerational projects going on. I wanted to focus on 3 different communities I have interacted with or am part of, the rocketry community, model engineering (as mentioned) and also amateur/HAM radio  I am saddened when I hear of older members of these groups passing away or indeed the membership of local societies becoming so low they close down. I do indeed mourn the loss of skills and knowledge but I am becoming increasingly aware that we (the maker community) are at risk of losing other stuff, namely structures and accreditation that enable us to do cool stuff.

So.. to provide an example for each group starting with my current favourite subject.. Rockets.

 I want to up my game in 2017 and get into higher power rocket launches and I have plans to try and get my level one certification and also my RSO (Range Safety Officer) exam. Currently the UKRA (UK rocketry association) administer this certification scheme which involve the candidate flying a high power model at a UKRA affiliated club with someone of a higher UKRA certification in attendance and administering the tests etc. Now if had done my certificate some years ago I could have found UKRA affiliate clubs in the Wirral (around 1hrs drive) or around Manchester (1.5-2.5hours). However these clubs have now stopped and my options are Gwent (4-5hrs) Surrey (5-6) or Birmingham (3 hrs). Now this is fine but it shows how vulnerable the certification scheme may be in a few years time... I guess to the point where ultimately this could disappear and the system for people to develop beyond small hobby rockets may not exist.

In model engineering/Live steam similar systems exist (I'm not massively involved in this scene but am aware) for example boiler testing, so if someone builds a model steam engine and wants to run the engine on a club track or on a public running day they need the boiler (a heated high pressure steam filled box!) to be tested and certified as the potential danger if a boiler failed under pressure is probably not dissimilar to a hand grenade! Again this certification system relies on clubs and members of clubs being certified and becoming accredited assessors. (Here is a list of assessors if of use!)

Finally HAM/amateur radio has similar issues in that the exam and certificate systems (although held centrally by the Radio Society of Great Britain RSGB) the actual people providing instruction and hosting and marking and submitting the examinations are clubs and club members. HAM radio does seem to be gaining a lot of support in the maker scene but still some clubs (particularly outside the larger cities) are struggling with an older and perhaps dwindling membership.

So how do we solve this? Well, I'm not sure I have all (or even any) of the answers but part of it is certainly supporting and getting involved in local clubs and if possible becoming involved to the point of being able to assess and accredit others is vital. But also if you are setting up a makerspace/hackspace/techgroup whatever, make sure you spend a bit of time thinking about how you can be sustainable not just in terms of cash flow and membership and knowledge but also certification and accreditation your members might need.

I also wonder if there are more practical stuff to be done? How about the larger maker events (faires, makefests, big hackathons) build in some accreditation events.. this seems an easy win for perhaps the amateur radio foundation license.. (may be more tricky for rocketry certs!)

As for me... I'm off to fill in my UKRA application form and pay my subs for next year.. :)

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Finally! Maiden flight!

So.. this project has taken me far too long to realise! I finally got out for a maiden flight on this 450mm quadcopter I've built. It's probably about a year since I bought the bits! Many many many people have built and flown quads these days so it doesn't warrant a massive post but for what it's worth my (budget) recipe for this quad is;

800kv brushless motors
cheap simonk 30amp ESCs
1045 props
CC3D flight controller
FST6 tx/rx
2200 mah 3s lipo

Its gone together pretty well and I am massively pleased with how stable and easy to fly (I'm a stabilised pilot so it feels similar to the couple of small brushed quads I've learnt on... JUST A HEAP MORE POWERFUL!). It was easy to setup the CC3D flight computer using the brilliant free and opensource LibrePilot which gets even more praise for being available for ubuntu.

Theres a few jobs to do and some tidying required but really chuffed to have flown this today and
there's definitely lifting power and space on this airframe for some cameras so hopefully I'll get some nice footage.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

3d printing 3d printer bits (and circular economy)

So a friend got in touch this week with a problem.. he needed a bit printing for his 3d printer that had broke. I was very pleased to print him a replacement part. I love that 3d printers can replicate parts for themselves and other machines, as my friends machine is open source they actually sent me a file someone had designed that was an improved version of the part that broke. Brilliant. I hope, whatever the wibbly wobbly future of tech and community brings, that these aspects remain.... a great example of a circular economy.

In fact... we can go further.. 

My friends printer sits in an office in a company (the team in the office all chipped in to have a 3dprinter in the dept to play with!) and when I dropped of the replacement part they said one of the work uses for it was printing replacement gears for a part of the conveying system in the warehouse of the company.. a part no longer available for purchase. So my bit fixes his printer which fixes a conveyor system ... and as I was passing their location with another work task the carbon footprint miles of this part are reduced even further. 

And finally the part that broke is PLA so my friend can stick that part in his compost bin and it will decompose....

reuse, repair, reduce, recycle.

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Rocket Ruler now on Thingiverse

Just in case anyone wanted one, I've put the Lasercut Rocketry Ruler design I put together for the recent rocket design workshop I ran onto thingiverse. The ruler is angled so that however it is placed on a tube/cylinder you will always be able to mark/measure a straight line parrallel to the centre line of the tub... very useful for all kinds of things but certainly for marking rocket fin placements! If you are wondering what the symbols at the ends are they represent the centre of pressure and centre of gravity the first of which must be behind the other to make a stable rocket.  Feel free to tip me millions on thingiverse! :)