Premiering in 2003, the Combots Cup is a continuation of the sport of robot combat started by the television show BattleBots which aired from 2000 to 2002. Even though the television show was deemed unprofitable, the idea of robot combat sparked the passion of the competitors which have been hosting the Combots Cup and Robo Games robot Olympics for the last 10 years. Interestingly enough, they still use the same style arena, rules and weight classes of the original BattleBots series. There are three popular types of combots: the basic wedge, pneumatic lifters and the high speed spinners. The winner of the tournament gets to take home the Combots Cup pictured to the left and put their name on it until next year’s event. The Tested channel on YouTube covered the 2012 Combots Cup and had a chance to interview the founder of the organization as well as some of the veteran robot builders. There’s also some fight footage:
Here’s some bonus high speed footage of the 2012 Combots Cup Champion, Last Rites. Wheelchair motors move it around the arena while an over-volted 25 horsepower golf cart motor spins its blade up to 2500 rpm producing a tip speed of 400 mph. The guys from the Distort channel set it loose on some used furniture and filmed the devastation in high speed.
The Ford Motor Company has come up with an interesting new variation on digital rapid prototyping. Usually when you talk about Computer Numeric Controlled (CNC) machines, they fall into one of two categories. The first is a subtractive process where a part is cut out of a block of raw material like a sculpture. The machine removes all of the waste material until all that’s left is the part as defined by the Computer-Aided Design (CAD) model. Additive CNC machines, like 3D printers, are a relatively new technology that have recently opened up rapid prototyping to enthusiasts everywhere. These machines build parts by starting with nothing and precisely adding material to the exact shape of the CAD model. What you’re left with is a physical representation of the digital information with no waste material.
Ford’s Freeform Fabrication Technology (F3T) is a new genre of rapid prototyping. Their machine takes existing raw material in the form of mass produced sheetmetal and manipulates it into the desired shape as defined by the CAD model. It appears that two round tip styluses press into the sheetmetal from the top and bottom in order to make the desired bends. After multiple passes, the two machines turn flat sheetmetal into the equivalent of a stamped part. The cool part is the finished product that comes out of the F3T machine should have pretty similar material properties and strength to the equivalent mass produced part without the time and money involved with making expensive dies. Like the other forms of rapid prototyping, this technology will be great for cost effective low production parts.
Scientists on the International Space Station may have found a way to improve internal combustion engines with some zero gravity flame experiments. It turns out gravity is a huge factor in forming the shapes of flames. As combustion happens, the exhaust gases get hot and rise which creates a current that draws fresh air in from the bottom of the flame. It’s this air current that causes flames to flicker upwards and to burn much hotter and faster thanks to the constant supply of fresh air.
As we saw with Bubbles and Anti-Bubbles in Water, air density has little effect in space. What does that mean for combustion? Without the ability to to produce convective air currents, flames burn completely differently. The exhaust gases naturally dissipate in all directions and at slower speeds. Without the rising hot air pulling it upwards, the flame takes on a spherical shape. It also burns much cooler since it’s not being constantly force fed fresh air.
These Cool Flames are what have scientists interested. We’ve barely been able to create them here on Earth, but it’s how all combustion happens in space. Gasoline has a lot of energy content, but the problem is controlling it. When ignited, all of the energy is released at once. While this has allowed us to make powerful engines to move cars, the efficiency is abysmal. Only a quarter to a third of the energy of content from the gas in your tank ends up turning the wheels of your car. The rest of it is wasted as heat. As we saw with slingshots and bullwhips, a tapered and controlled release of energy is often times more effective than an instant punch. If we can figure out how to replicate this Cool Flame chemistry inside of an engine, we can burn fuel slower and cooler to get more work out of it.
Alfa Romeo released this footage of the assembly line that puts together their new 4C sport coupe. The chassis starts life as flat pieces of pre-impregnated carbon fiber fabric before being CNC cut to the correct shapes for assembly. Since carbon fiber doesn’t have the same strength in all directions (it’s non-isotropic), each layer of the carbon fiber fabric has to have a specific alignment. Once all of the layers are overlapped and compressed together, the piece will be customized to be strong enough to withstand the specific force loading of that area of the chassis. After all of the pieces of carbon fiber fabric are assembled, the chassis is wrapped in plastic vacuum bags and placed in an autoclave where it’s baked under pressure. All of these steps are taken to ensure there are no air bubbles in the resin that holds the carbon fibers as it cures. Expelling all of the air is the key to making strong carbon fiber that won’t shatter when loaded. The completed chassis then heads to the Maserati factory (Ferrari, Maserati and Alfa Romeo are all owned by the Fiat group) where the rest of the aluminum subframes, composite body panels and 240 hp 1.8 liter direct injection engine are installed.
Check out this TED Talk by Raffaello D’Andrea if you need another reason to think electric vehicles are cool. D’Andrea and his team have programmed quadcopters to perform amazing feats inside a zone where they use external camera feedback to locate themselves similar to GPS. Quadcopters are agile because they are inherently unstable. There are a bare minimum number of motors and propellers to influence the four degrees of freedom: roll, pitch, yaw and acceleration. A high resolution of control is afforded by the fact that electric motors are essentially perfect digital actuators fast enough to keep up with processors. The controller supplies a current to the motor which results in a precise amount of torque output almost instantaneously. That’s what makes these quadcopter tricks possible just like digital control over pulse width modulation (blinking really fast) and color in LED’s has ushered in a new era of 3D Projection Light Shows. Watch the video to see mind blowing acrobatics like holding a reverse pendulum, triple flips, gesture control, adapting to broken propellers and teams of quadcopters tethered together with a ball catching and throwing device dubiously named the Skynet:
If the power of mechatronic control algorithms can do that with quadcopters, think of what we can do with electric cars. Instead of four propellers on a quadcopter, picture the controllers managing four electric motors driving the wheels of a car. We can now hook a processor up to simultaneously read wheel slippage, accelerations in all directions, and yaw thousands of times a second. It can then apply both positive and negative torque to each individual wheel to make the chassis performance match the driver’s input in a huge array of conditions. Give that same processor access to active aerodynamic flaps or ground effect fans and we may be entering a new era of racing technology with electric cars. This is the kind of innovation that made the different propulsion modes on the Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Electric Drive so mind blowing to Chris Harris when he got to drive it. The SLS E-Drive has individual drive motors for each wheel and may be the first real performance electric car to take advantage of these mechatronic control algorithms to manipulate chassis dynamics.
If you find any of this at all interesting, then you owe it to yourself to check out the DIY Drones open-source community and start tinkering!