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!
One of my goals with this blog has been to promote the idea that do-it-yourself can mean much more than just turning your own wrenches. Chances are if you truly love this automotive hobby, then you have the ability to take part in the design and engineering process simply through sheer experience and/or enthusiasm. You don’t have to have an engineering degree or be a professional engineer to be effective. We live in exciting times because the world of rapid prototyping is within grasp of enthusiasts. Why is that such a game changer? The old way of doing business that we’ve inherited from the industrial revolution is that of mass production. Come up with an idea for a product and immediately throw a patent on it. Then, refine it so that it can be used by the most people (compromise) and then invest a substantial amount of money in tooling and molds so that you can make a zillion of them to sell to recoup your initial investment and turn a profit. Rapid prototyping uses digital information (CAD models) to power universally flexible machines like CNC mills, CNC routers tables and 3D printers to produce products in single batches. This technology completely diminishes the infrastructure that used to separate having an idea and turning it into a physical product and that’s a game changer. It also allows high levels of customization since production batches as small as one are now profitable. We are on the cusp of a huge paradigm shift in the way a lot of people conduct business. The information age has finally made its way into manufacturing and we are all going to benefit from it. Check out this TED talk to see how open source design and creative commons have changed the world of architecture:
I think the same concepts can be applied to engineering, specifically automotive tuning/modification/hot rodding. I’m working on putting together software, tools and processes where enthusiasts can gather and design their own aftermarket parts to make their cars better. It should be an exciting time for sure, so stay tuned. For now I recommend you check out this book: Makers: The New Industrial Revolution by Chris Anderson.
It’s generally a safe assumption that when a person chooses a career as a pilot that he or she loves to fly. Yves Rossy is a pilot for a Swiss airline and he loves to fly. The thing that makes Yves special is that one day he decided that flying planes was not enough. He wanted to fly like a bird. That’s when the Jetman project was born. The idea was to build a rigid carbon fiber wing that Rossy could wear on his back. It would also house four high-end remote control airplane turbines that burned kerosene to produce 22 pounds of thrust each. The fuel tank inside the wing holds enough fuel for 8 minutes of flight time. Yves purposely left control surfaces out of his design. His body would act like the wing’s fuselage so that he could use his head, arms and legs to control his flight. Jetman is very literal name for his project. So far Rossy has flown across the English Channel, raced a rally car on Top Gear and flown in the Grand Canyon among many other successful flights. His future ambitions for the Jetman project are to train another pilot for some formation flying and to be able to take off from the ground.
Often times when you speak to people about engineering, you begin to hear about two seemingly different factions: Practical and Theoretical Engineering. Many professors and industry professionals will tell young engineering students that you need experience in both camps. Why is it Practical and Theoretical Engineering can be so different? If you go to college and get a mechanical engineering degree, they will teach you engineering analysis. This is how you make an idealized mathematical model of a situation and here are the equations you need to calculate maximum loading, stress etc. This is what Theoretical Engineering consists of and an engineering degree generally means you are an expert at it.
Practical Engineering is a different story. You don’t improve your skills doing Practical Engineering in a classroom. The only way to get better at Practical Engineering is with hands-on experience building and fixing things. Where Theoretical Engineering is an analysis procedure, Practical Engineering is a creative problem solving process. The more varied types of problems you solve, the better you are at it. The key is have a repertoire of previous solutions to draw from when you are faced with something new. You could even go as far as to say that Practical Engineering draws on the creative side of your brain more so than the analytical side.
Having experience with both sides of engineering is what leads to the best design solutions. Case in point: the Freedom Leverage Chair. Amos Winter, an MIT Mechanical Engineering Student, set out to produce an all-terrain wheelchair for use in developing countries. He says something very important that I think a lot of engineering students don’t understand: The constraints drive the innovation. In order for Winter’s invention to be successful, it had to cost less than $200, be usable on rough roads yet small enough to maneuver in houses and be easily repaired by local resources. His final solution uses mass produced bicycle parts and ended up being 40% more efficient and 80% faster on rough terrain than a traditional wheelchair. It took three prototype iterations to find a working solution with the input of the end users and the technicians who would be servicing the chairs. Designing a product so simple and effective that it actually helps people and changes their lives, that’s real world engineering.