“Geary” the making of a cardboard robot

I recently took a job at the Y Creator Space, which is part of the Homewood Brushton YMCA. I will be here for 10 months as part of a full-time AmeriCorps term of service. During that time I will do my level best to teach lessons about engineering and STEM to youth age 9 – 13 every day after they are done with school.  But first…we needed some kids to teach. The Y Creator Space was short on attendees as we went into this new school year, which was crazy since this is a free afterschool program that also feeds the kids dinner!

Part of our recruiting strategy was setting up a table at local events and luring parents and kids in with cool projects from the Makerspace. I thought a great showpiece might really bring them in, and since we’re all about inventing with cardboard and making robots, I needed to combine the two ideas.

While I had this project in mind for a while it wasn’t till the director of youth programming at the Y suggested we make a robot secretary, and the shape of the bot materialized. With Tank in mind I set off, made a quick plan and started cutting cardboard.

Before long I had a prototype:
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Right now you’re looking at two servo motors glued inside of a box each with an empty tape roll attached directly do it. It had been a while since I had worked with puppetry, and I had never worked with animatronics, but I’ve been a sculptor for long enough that I knew I could get something working…

Now I need some kind of linkage to attach the mouth to a servo motor, and of course it would have to turn to look at people…

Here it is all finished up a few days later!
The whole thing is 4 servo motors rigged up to 3 potentiometers, controlling both eyes, rotation and the opening and closing of the mouth. The controller is a Hummingbird Duo, the same controller that we teach the kids on and they all have access too.

Normally a Hummingbird must be hooked up to a computer to a function but for the sake of portability I wanted to take advantage of the Hummingbird Duo’s ability to hold a simple arduino program. I was running into some issues with ArduBlock so I dug deep into my programming history and hacked together some example code to make each potentiometer which gave an output from 0-100 control each servo which takes an input from 0 – 180, thanks to Tom Lauwers and the team at Bird Brain Technologies for making this easy enough for even me to do!

Geary has been a big hit around the Y Creator Space and at the events we attend. I’m very proud of this creation, it’s been a great teaching tool!



Humans weren’t meant to fly [Day 0]

After getting my amateur radio license with Matt B I knew exactly what I was going to do with it…assist in the weekly operations of Buggy at CMU. I started reporting weekly to the W3VC Buggy Safety net. The net consists of amateur Radio operators helping out by making sure everyone is well informed about what was going on around the buggy course, they maintained a direct line to Emergency Medical Personal when needed, and in general kept everyone off each other’s toes.

But Matt had other ideas; he didn’t have any interest in standing around in the cold and the dark before 7 in the morning shouting a call sign into the void….Matt wanted to fly.

Remote control over radio frequencies isn’t rare, in fact its the most common way to transmit that kind control input across line-of-sight to an RC vehicles…but with a little more power we could drive a vehicle out of line of sight! So we wanted to make a drone. Now when most people think of drones they picture this:

Phantom 3 Quadcoptor Drone

We wanted to build this:

General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper/Predator

Well…that’s kind of big and expensive…How about something in between?

AeroVironment RQ-11 Raven

Yeah that thing is cute! It looks like an RC plane and also is scaled to something we could actually make. While I was really excited to start fabricating planes we both needed to wrap up school before really jumping in earnest, but we did find a couple of hours to talk about distributing the labor. Matt would take care of control systems, internal electronics, propulsion, guidance, vision, batteries, base stations, permits….ya know everything that I wasn’t interested in…which was everything except building the physical body of the plane.

I did a bit of research and learned designing airplanes is really hard, I didn’t want to have to calculate the idea surface area to payload ratio of my aircraft and then find the right major axis along the airfoil of the wing….I’m sure a bunch of those words are in the wrong order.

The long and short of it was, at the very least I wanted to piggyback on someone else’s design, in comes: Flite Test and their Tiny Trainer. Flite test was a website for people like me who wanted to attempt to get into RC planes. They were even graciously giving away plans free online!

Look at these things! This one piratically is a RQ-11!

FT Explorer from Flite Test

But it was kinda complicated and I didn’t yet have a motor to fly it with…what do they recommend starting with?

Tiny Trainer from Flite Test

I think this thing was still pretty cool. So I went and got some plans…FT-Mini TinyTrainer-plans

At this time I was still operating as a shop supervisor for the Art Department at Carnegie Mellon so I had access to laser cutters which turned what might have been tedious job of cutting out foam…into an agonizing but brief  fight with the settings on our cutter.

Soon I had this:

2017-03-02 20.51.42

Huge thanks to Flite Test for making this kind of work possible. But I put the plane together and had something reasonable! I re-enforced the leading edge with some tape to give it some character and personality:

2017-03-03 14.24.19
Mk .001

Time to test it:

Ah well, it’s not supposed to fly backwards, better get some weight in the front end. Apparently it’s very important that you have the center of gravity right at the wing when flying planes….

Better….what if we try again?

Hey that was a pretty good flight!! Now we’re getting somewhere I bet we can replicate that!

Ouch. It hurt me to just hear that happen.

Whelp…so much for the Mk .001! Luckily they design this thing to be modular so I printed out another one, but this time I did a little custom design work.


I made this plastic “Air frame” designed to add weight to the front-end and reduce the need for a counterweight, and also re-enforce the nose cone to resist crashes. It sure looked cool!

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Here the plane is in parts…2017-03-03 17.54.39

All together….now for the maiden voyage:

It didn’t make it.
At this point I had to stop playing with Airplanes and refocus onto classwork. These test-flights were dated March 3, 2017 hopefully some time soon Matt B. and I will reconvene to discuss the creation of further ‘paper airplane’ construction. Making things that fly is really cool…but you should be prepared for those things to break regularly…or sometimes get lost in the park, and returned to the lost and found by a good samaritan.

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Found in Blue Slide Park while going on a run.