January 26, 2015

Some Long Needed Updates to the Big Scooter

The Big Scooter (version 2) has existed for a year and a half now, and I've finally gotten around to doing some long needed updates to it.  Most importantly, I originally did not build in a chain tensioning mechanism, because the chain length worked out pretty much perfectly.  Chains stretch, though, so the chain started falling off, especially when plowing through snow.  Since it's snow season again, it seemed prudent to fix this problem.

First quick fix, replacing the hand-truck bearings I never bothered upgrading with more legitimate bearings.  The original bearings had deteriorated so much there was about 10 degrees of slop in the back wheel.


Since the new bearings actually have precisely bored I.D.'s, I had to turn down my front axle a little bit to match:


I added an eccentric sprocket on the drive-side swingarm for tensioning the chain:


The sprocket gets clamped in this block, and rotated to apply the desired tension:



It's mounted to the scooter as high as possible, so there is little possibility of it scraping when driving over obstacles:


Finally, I added some grip tape to the deck.  Sadly, clear grip tape isn't particularly clear.  Next time around I'll probably go with plain black:


Now, I just need to whip up some studded tires or tire chains before the blizzard hits tomorrow.

January 23, 2015

Trying to Crack the EC Desk Safe

There's an old safe at the EC front desk that hasn't been opened in a while, and no one knows either the combination or what's in it.  A number of students have unsuccessfully tried manually cracking it, but a little label on the safe does say it has been tested to 20 hours of expert manipulation, or something like that, so manually cracking the combo is pretty difficult.  I actually don't know much about safe cracking.  I understand the mechanism behind this kind of lock, and some ways by which it can be exploited, but I have pretty much no experience actually trying to crack safes.  I do have experience building robots, however.

It shouldn't be too hard to build a simple robot to auto-dial safe combinations.  All you need is a servo to rotate the dial and some way of sensing when the correct combination has been entered.  And since robots are infinitely patient, it can just brute-force combinations until it finds the correct one.

How long will that take?  Well, the safe has 100 numbers per dial, and the combination is 3 numbers.  That means 100^3 or 1,000,000 possible combos, right?  Actually no.  First, locks have mechanical tolerance.  When entering a number into the dial, your number-entering precision needs to be something like ± 1 increment from the correct number.  Actual tolerance depends on the exact model of lock, going down to about ± .5.  I don't know exactly what model of lock is on the safe, but it appears to be made by Sargent and Greenleaf, and looking at their catalog of modern locks for reference, I settled on ±1.  So, that cuts the number of possible combinations by a factor of 8, bringing it down to 125,000.  Additionally, according to the manual, one should never set the third number to anything 95-20, because it can stop the lock from working correctly.  This brings the total number down to 92,500.  Much more reasonable.  Supposing it takes 6 seconds to enter a combination (I'll explain why it takes so long later), that's 6.4 days to try everything.  So it should average something like 3.2 days to open.  That is still a pretty long time, but as long as I'm not sitting there entering combinations, who cares?

On to the hardware.  Here's the basics of how it works:
The device will magnet on to the door of the safe.  A coupling with a spline matching that of the dial will mesh with the dial to connect it to a motor.  I'm using a giant stepper motor.  Now I want to be very clear, I hate stepper motors.  They're terrible.  Servos all the way.  However, I didn't have any motors with appropriate low-speed torque and backlash-free gear-down on hand, so I didn't have much choice but to use a stepper motor.  I grabbed the biggest one I could, which I scavenged out of some old lab equipment a while back.  The stepper is powered by a (also scavenged) stepper driver, which is controlled by an STM32 Nucleo F411RE.  I found about these things through Bayley, and they're great.  $10, lots of computing power, and compatible with the mbed compiler, which I am already very familiar with.  This is in turn connected to a netbook which logs attempted combinations and sends me an email every 1000 tries and when it thinks the lock has been opened.

Here's the motor, microcontroller, and stepper driver.  To start out, I used this Easy Power GSD200S, because some x-ray equipment MITERS crufted a couple months ago had a bunch of them.  This driver could only do half-stepping, so everything was really noisy.  When first testing out the machine, there was a noise complaint from someone living two floors above the desk.  I later swapped this stepper driver out for something a bit nicer.



The easiest thing to do with a stepper motor is just command it constant step rate for constant velocity motion.  When starting and changing directions, though, this demands nearly instant velocity change, which doesn't work that well for either the motor or the lock.  To make things smoother, I implemented some acceleration control which adjusts the delay between steps to approximate constant acceleration.

This isn't too difficult to do.  First define some starting velocity (because no one wants divide-by-zero errors): v_sart, in steps per second.  The pulse period, dt, required to move the motor at v_start is just 1/v_start.  Say the motor should accelerate at rate a, in steps/seconds^2.  The first time interval, dt_1, is equal to 1/v_start.  After accelerating at rate a for time dt_1, the motor's velocity should be v_start + a*dt_1.  So the next pulse duration, dt_2, should be 1/(v_start + a*dt_1).  Repeat this process, substituting in the previous step's velocity and period, and you can generate a set of pulse durations that approximate constant acceleration of the motor.  Mirror that set of pulse durations about its end, and you have a constant acceleration, constant deceleration trajectory between two points.  The smaller the steps are, the smaller you can make v_start, and the better the approximation is.



On to some hardware building.

Some metal plates for the structure where milled on the MITERS CNC mill:

T-nuts can be step clamps too

The front metal plate has four large neodymium magnets press-fit into it.



Two aluminum rods are press-fit into the front plate.  A set screw in the front can be tightened into the ring around the lock's dial, to prevent anything from rotating.  The spacing of the motor can be adjusted using the two clamps around the shafts on the motor plate.


A laser-cut delrin spline meshes with the dial:


The dial-spline is coupled to the motor with a flexible shaft coupling to compensate for lack of concentricity and wobble in the dial.


To sense when the correct combination has been entered, there is a one count per revolution encoder on the shaft, made from an optical limit sensor.  After entering the correct combination into one of these locks, you turn the dial clockwise until it locks up (around 95).  At this point the stepper will stall.  The sensor detects when the stall has occurred, so the microcontroller knows the lock is open.


Here it is installed and running for the first time:


(video credit to Danny Ben-David)

There are a couple points to note.
  • It's very loud.  This is caused by the half stepping limitation of the stepper driver used, and lack of mechanical isolation between the motor and frame.  I fixed the latter by adding some squishy rubber between the motor and it's aluminum plate, and securing it with Structural Zip Ties rather than steel screws.  Stepping noise was reduced by switching to a fancier stepper driver with 32x microstepping.
  • It's not very fast, especially on the first counter-clockwise rotation.  This particular lock gets extremely stiff on the fourth turn around the dial.  I had to slow down the stepper to stop it from skipping steps during that part of the rotation.  This could be solved with a higher voltage power supply.
Hopefully before the next report the safe will be open.  Current progress is around 2%

January 18, 2015

A Box for a Plane


I finally made it back to Atlanta this December, and while I was there I was given this beautiful little block plane.  It seemed appropriate to build a box for the plane, using the plane.

Here's the plane on top of the block of oak from which I made the box.  It's solid, but made from a few pieces glued together.  I think it's a section from a post on the staircase of our old house.


I started by sawing off a slice of the block to make a lid from.


I squared off all sides roughly with my larger block plane, after I spent a good long while sharpening it.


I finished the sides with the little plane.  No sanding needed.


I began chiseling out a recess for the plane using some small chisels and gouges.



I slowly carved deep enough to fully submerge the plane:



I chiseled a dovetail into the sides of the edge around the box, and beveled the lid to match:



I sawed a thin slice off the bottom of the box to finish the lid:


The two pieces of the lid were glued together and planed square with the rest of the box.  Here it is after a couple coats of tung oil:






The finished cavity of the plane.  I carved it as close to the actual shape of the plane as I reasonably could:



December 28, 2014

East Campus Roller Coaster: Actually Building the Thing

Winter break means it's time to finally finish up roller coaster documentation.

TL:DR; here's a timelapse of the construction.  Jaguar setup and maintained a bunch of cameras, and I compiled the stills into video.


Construction took place over a week, and was done by a combination of East Campus residents, incoming freshmen, a few students from other dorms, and a few random strangers.

I think there are a few key things that made it possible to finish construction in such a short timeframe:

Being prepared
We thought through the construction process as thoroughly as we could before actually building anything.  This included putting together lots of documentation and drawings for different parts of the roller coaster, thinking through assembly order and methods, and making jigs to assemble some repetitive parts.  Here's an example of one of the sets of assembly documents.

Some parts of the construction, like assembling frames under the track, could be easily parallelized.  Each unique frame section got its own drawing showing the critical dimensions and pieces of lumber required.  These drawings could then be handed to one or two reasonably skilled people, who were generally able to assemble a frame section in a half hour or so.


Here's footprint drawing, showing the location of each of the frame sections (like the one above).


The frame directly beneath the track was made from two types of assembly which alternated and fit together kind of like a roller chain (wide link, narrow link, wide link, etc).  We built jigs for both the cutting of the 2x6s and 2x4s as well as assembly jigs, since many of each were needed.  Then the job was handed off to a crew of enthusiastic freshman who had never really used power tools before.


Not trying to do everything...
Basically delegate, delegate, delegate.  I like doing everything, so it's very tempting to try to personally do or oversee everything.  Turns out, with a project this big that just isn't possible.  Wesley was also great at organizing people to do things.  On that note, having more than one person who really knew what was going definitely sped things up.  

...But still trying to do as much as possible.
Jobs that were critical to the roller coaster's function and couldn't be easily farmed out Wesley and I did ourselves.  Laying the track sub-frame, putting up the tower posts, making sure the frame was actually straight, and more.  Sleep was scarce that week.

On to the actual construction.

The night before the first load of Home Depot wood arrived, we marked out the foundation of the roller coaster in cheap yellow rope and tent stakes.  The next day, we dug small pits for each of the concrete footers and filled them with gravel.  We then leveled all the blocks and started assembling the base platform:


By the first night we had the frame of the platform:


The next day assembly of the frame sections started.  They can be seen propped against the trees.  Unfortunately, I underestimated the amount of wood we would need over the first weekend, so we used up all our wood early and lost a day.


Sterritt Lumber to the rescue!  Truly absurd quantities of wood were delivered on an all-terrain three wheeled swerve drive forklift.


And at this point my documentation fell apart a bit because I forgot to take pictures during the chaos of construction.  

The tower posts were assembled to their full 28' length on the ground, bolted together, and then disassembled into halves.  The lower half of each posts went up immediately.  After the second level platform was built, the top halves of the posts were carried up and bolted on.  

Once all the frame sections were built, it only took one day to assemble them to make the structure beneath the track.  This was definitely the most impressive day of progress, with basically the entire structure appearing over the course of 8 hours.

Photo credit to Wesley Lau

To make sure the frame was assembled straight, each section of the frame was measured to the sidewalk parallel to the coaster.  Except for two of the middle sections which interfered with tree roots, we were able to get everything positioned plus or minus about a half inch from the sidewalk over the entire length.  The offset in the two middle sections was noted and compensated for when we put of the track sub-frame.  To prevent error accumulation along the length of the roller coaster, each frame section was measured and positioned with respect to the base of the tower, rather than with respect to the previous section.

Tall sections of the frame also had work platforms and railings built into them, so we wouldn't have to use ladders when working on or inspecting the track.


Putting up the posts and floors involved lots of miserable augering of 1" and .75" holes through up to 10" of solid wood.  Despite Rush's purchase of the biggest, highest torque drills that could be found at Home Depot, the 1" auger bits repeatedly got stuck in the 4x4's.  Unsticking them was a half-hour process of violently wrenching the bit back and forth until it came loose.  Next year I should build some sort of auger-assist device with a extra gear-down for the drill and a brace so your hand's don't have to deal with the drilling torque.

Photo credit Danny Ben-David

Putting up the track sub-frame was one of my favorite parts of construction - watching the roller coaster's track take shape was beautiful.  This was a job that had to be done serialy, so Wesley and I did the whole thing.  To make sure each segment of the track was put up in the correct orientation, I made a drawing including the height of the end corner of each segment with respect to the beam supporting it.  We would tack in a segment to the previous one at a corner.  The segment could then be rotated to the correct height, and fixed in place with a second screw.  Vertical supports were put in for about every other segment.  Someone else came in behind us and filled out the supports later.  In all, laying the sub-frame was about a day and a half of work.



The track framing finished bright and early in the morning.




The ladder to the second floor was replaced with a nice shallow staircase.  The staircase was another job that was completely handed off to a dedicated crew with very little guidance.  A couple days later, a finished staircase appeared.


Laying the plywood track took a day and a night, finishing around 9 or 10 a.m. on the Sunday of the East Side Party.  The track consisted of three layers of 3/8" plywood bent along the wooden frame.  Bending the plywood turned out to not be too hard.  The most difficult bit to bend was the start of the first drop.  The upturn at the end of the track was another challenge, but that managed to work out nicely as well.  We had an awesome crew who worked through the night to finish laying the track.

Photo credit to Billy DeMaio

Photo credit to Danny Ben-David


Photo credit to Danny Ben-David (click to zoom for glorious high-resolution)

Photo credit to Rachel Davis.  Don't worry, the last 4 feet of plywood were added later.

Once the plywood track had been laid down, we slowly rolled the cart along the track, so make sure it traveled smoothly.  Then we did an unmanned test run with an empty cart, followed by a test run with 150 lbs of sand in the cart.  Then I got to go.   This was my first time riding a roller coaster of any kind.  It was awesome. 


At this point we hadn't put in the last 4 of plywood track.  The cart didn't quite reach it, but I thought it would be good to put in, if only to make people feel safer.

For the first day of operation, the cart faced forwards.  We tried flipping it around the next day, and people seemed to prefer going down backwards, so the ride was left backwards for the remainder of the week.

Photo credit to Danny Ben-David


Actually running the ride started out pretty inefficient.  A crew of 4 or 5 people would slowly walk the cart back to the bottom of the first hill, at which point we winched the cart to the start with an overvolted electric truck winch running off a big A123 battery pack, and cooled by a bank of server fans.  The process took about 8-10 minutes per run.  Later though, we improved the cart return process to use one strong person to get the cart back to the winch.  By the end, the total ride and reset time was under 3 minutes.  In total I'd estimate around 400 people were able to ride the roller coaster between Sunday night and Thursday afternoon, when we closed it down.

Photo credit to Wesley Lau

Here are a couple videos of rides from Sunday night (courtesy of Rachel Davis):



One big unknown pre-building was how the plywood track would hold up to repeated use.  By the time we stopped doing rides, there were a couple small patches of plywood where the top ply had started falling apart.  These patches were at the highest compression spots on the track, at the bottoms of the first two hills.  So the top layer of plywood is good for a few hundred ride cycles at this loading, but not much more.  If we did want to run the roller coaster for longer, however, it would have been easy to replace just the top layer of plywood where it was wearing out.

Well, that's a wrap.