Monday, February 18, 2019

FIRST Robotics 2019 - Down to the Wire in Week Six

So many things to get done, so little time left to do them.  We lost Tuesday practice to yet another blizzard.  Fortunately we got Monday and Thursday in, albeit with a reduced work force.  And a long session Friday to get ready for our weekend practice scrimmage.  A few pictures of the week before we move on to the robot's first real outing.

We seem to be big on making really solid parts.  Laser cut, welded, bolted down.  This is a mount for a delicate range finding device that we have not put on yet.

A couple of ambitious things have been evolving in these late days.  The suction cup for ball retrieval has to date been a simple and entirely functional plastic dog bowl from Wal Mart.  Well, one of the kids just had to precision machine a version out of solid aluminum.  I present, a dog bowl made to 1/1000th of an inch precision.  Why?  I ask the team that all the time..."why....just....why?"

We had a scrimmage on Saturday.  It was as always, very interesting.  Many other teams have struggled as we have with weather.  Judging by the numbers of no - shows as the pits opened, I'd say many have struggled harder than team 5826.

Of the teams that showed up - as opposed to staying home for a day of frantic building - we were among the better prepared.  Mechanically our machine appears rock solid.  We did have some software issues and have more than a few final tweaks still ahead, but the robot performed well.

In fact, there were so many robots unable to answer the bell that we got into the habit of bringing extra batteries along and often did back to back matches.  The guy in charge of the queue line got to know the kids well...they were always rolling the robot up and asking "Can we just jump back in?"

A day of solid pay off for a season of hard work.  More hard work of course still ahead.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Forgotten Brewery Caves - Saxonia House

Today's "Forgotten Brewery Cave" is from Fredonia Wisconsin.  This is in the south east part of the state where small breweries abounded.

It is in a hill side behind the Saxonia House, a surviving 1850's building that was Inn, residence and brewery.  Since this is an area with no natural rock formations it is of the "tunnel and vault" variety.  It takes up a fair part of this low lying hill.

It is a substantial structure.  Here is the ante chamber, two storage rooms lie beyond.

Prior to going in I walked over the top.  There I noticed some interesting vent holes that I'd soon be seeing from the other side.  These vaulted structures were more likely to have small square or rectangle vents along the sides of the vault, although as it happens, Saxonia has the more common round, mid ceiling vents as well.  Interestingly these were made not from metal or pottery as would be usual, but from carefully hollowed out logs!

The cave is fairly standard stuff in most respects.  In the back there is what looks like an archway with this area of cave in/dig out.  There does not appear to be an additional chamber beyond, the soil dug out here - apparently by an animal - is clean sand.  I have run into blank archways a few times before.  Maybe they were for planned additions.  On a few occasions I have seen evidence that the were a niche for machinery.

Here is the Saxonia House in a vintage photo.  The brewery is the extension on the right.  It seems to have collapsed about 25 years ago.

The rest of the structure is hanging in there.  Under the caked on layers of more recent work it is a "Fachwerk" or half timbered structure very typical of buildings in Germany.

The site is being slowly renovated by a local volunteer group.  More information on the history of the Saxonia House, and a contact email can be found HERE.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Forgotten Brewery Caves - Bat Survey

I have mentioned in past postings the plight of North America's bat populations as they are reeling from the impact of White Nose Syndrome, a fungal infection thought to have been carried over from Europe.  The disease has spread quickly and for certain species has reduced numbers by 99%.  

From time to time I have been able to point the Department of Natural Resources towards brewery caves that harbor bats, and interestingly they appear to have environmental conditions under which White Nose Syndrome has been less of a catastrophe.  This makes them of considerable interest, just what combination of temperature, humidity and unknown factors makes them relative havens?

On a recent brisk Wednesday I got to go on a bat survey.  We suited up in elaborate disposable coveralls, donned helmets and headlamps and explored brewery caves.

Because the needs of bats for winter time sleep is acute, and because too many visitors may help to spread the disease, no location here.  Besides it is on private property.

A typical sort of cave for a small brewery in a part of the state without solid rock structure.  It was an excavated tunnel in which straight rock foundations were built, then wooden forms for an arch were placed.  The brickwork was laid then the forms removed.  These caves are close to the surface and as we found in several locations, prone to deterioration over time.  But this one was in first rate condition.

Invariably they were built with more than one chamber.  Here we are looking from the outer to the inner room.  There would have also been an antechamber covering the entrance for additional insulation and security.

Many of my pictures this day were sub par.  It was my first attempt at photography by headlamp and I was reluctant to use a lot of flash.  Bats are grumpy when awakened. But you can see several of our snoozing pals hanging from the ceiling here.

My job was mostly recording data and helping pin down locations for a few obscure sites.  But I did have a chance to look about several caves I'd not been in before and this one had a small, interesting side tunnel.  It had a slight incline to it and I suspect it was used to slide blocks of ice, or perhaps to roll small kegs, down from above.

Bats are funny critters.  Their lives are so different from ours being as they are an endless cycle of promiscuous mating, bug eating and hibernation at a level such that their hearts beat four times a minute and they breathe every ten minutes or so.

No wonder they are a bit cranky when disturbed. 

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

What's in a (robot) Name?

What do you call a robot that is effectively a large, mobile vacuum cleaner that can reach six feet up in the air?  I put the question out at the table where the team snacks during work sessions...

The middle suggestion is strong on clever, dubious on taste but is ruled out because you don't go teasing billionaires with legions of lawyers.  The other two...

I was frankly surprised that when you google the movie line "Release the Kraken" you get a scene from Clash of the Titans that shows a critter that actually does not have much in the way of suction cups.  

Kraken of course is a mythical Scandinavian critter based on observations of giant squid.  Something more like this:

Noo Noo sparked a faint memory even before the reference to Teletubbies was made clear.  It is the semi sentient vacuum cleaner that adds a faint hint of darkness to the sun drenched superficially idyllic Hell that the 'Tubs rule over.  

Other than adult input on matters of taste and legal peril this decision like all others of gravity, will be left to the team to make.

Monday, February 11, 2019

FIRST Robotics 2019 - End of Week Five

Week five.  Most years this is the tough one.  The deadline for completion looms near but everyone has been working hard for a month and frankly is starting to get a little tired of the robot, the coaches and each other!

So we usually dial it back a bit saving some energy for the home stretch.  This year, alas, in Week six we are losing about half the team to a Music Department trip to New Orleans.   

The week as it happened.

Monday.  No practice, school cancelled.  There is usually no doubt about this call but on this occasion it may not have been warranted.  The day started out 40 degrees and big puddles.  It was projected to freeze up during the day and make the world a big skating rink.  It was not all that bad, work done.

Tuesday.  Practice on but it snowed like the dickens and we had kids needing to leave early.  Also a critical system might not be legal under the rules of the game.  Desultory experimentation with alternatives.

Wednesday.  No practice, work space unavailable.

Thursday.  No practice, school cancelled with the approach of another wave of snow.

Friday/Saturday/Sunday.  In FIRST robotics there is an odd and interesting tradition called Ri3D, which stands for Robot in Three Days.  The way this works is a bunch of former FIRST students now in college or the working world, take a look at the challenge when it is announced and then spend 72 hours of kamikaze building to come up with a workable if basic machine.  I think they do this for the fun of it but also to give real teams some ideas to think about.

We are not quite down to the necessity of a Ri3D build but we expanded our build hours over the weekend.  In fact, I just put out start times, work goes on as long as it is productive...

Friday.  Good crew on hand.  Now you might imagine that the point of last minute building is to build, not to take apart.  The display of wire and tubing spaghetti is especially bad here.

But a significant engineering issue we had to solve was counterbalancing that long arm with too much weight on the end.  The solution was a pneumatic cylinder pulling 60 pounds backwards.  It made a pretzel out of the first attempt at a linkage.  Here is the gearbox/arm/cylinder assembly back together having been redone in a beefier fashion.

By the way, nobody else in FIRST robotics builds these ridiculous, top heavy, industrial strength robots. I ask the kids sometimes, I plead with them actually, "why can't you just build a normal robot?"  They say that wouldn't be enough fun.

Saturday.  Scheduled to be a work til the work is done day.  But a productive crew got the necessary things done before 5.

It is still unclear if our vacuum system will be allowed under the current and somewhat nebulous rules.  So several kids have been working hard on alternatives.  This foam "bee hive" can just be slammed into the middle of the disc.  It holds pretty well.

As in every previous season, we have a functional robot one week before we need it.  Actual drive practice is happening.  So far things are pretty crude, but improving.

A FIRST robot is not really done until the bumpers are done.  Here's a nice set finished and installed earlier than in any previous season.  

Sunday  Fatigue had set in pretty hard by this point.  We ended up with 15 hours of work spread out over the weekend.  But progress continued.

Here's the robot in competition ready configuration.  The mess of wires and tubes needs some additional attention but at least now everything is labeled.

And here is sort of a "stretch project".  Modular control box for electronics.  Designed, laser cut, welded and assembled by students.  It is called The Black Box.

As always the final touches come from a kid lingering on just a bit longer to finish things up.  Currently, pun intended, we can tell when the robot has latched onto the ball by listening to a change in the pitch of the whining vacuum motor.  That won't work in the arena.  So our main programmer figured out that the motor's current draw changes when a secure seal is established.  The robot can tell us that.  The way he figured to do so was by making the gameboy controller that the arm operator is using just start vibrating!

More snow ahead.  

Friday, February 8, 2019

Stalags and Stalagmites

Being interested in both POW history and caves you'd think the possibility of an etymological connection between "Stalag" and "stalagmite" would have occurred to me long ago.   But it  was only recently that the resemblance caught my eye.

But it seems to be an unusual case of linguistic coincidence.

"Stalag" of course is of German origin.  It is a contraction of the word "Stammlager".  This in turn is, in most typical Teutonic fashion, a word welded together from two smaller bits.  "Stamm", which has several meanings including permanent, and "Lager" meaning a storage place, or in another sense, a camp.  So "permanent camp" might be about right. In the WWII German system there were also temporary camps called "Dulag".  This is a much shortened version of "Durchgangslager".  Durchgang means approximately "just passing through".

We are of course more familiar with Lager in the sense of storage, lager beer requiring a long ageing period, often in caves.  

But despite the frequent appearance of German words in scientific realms, stalagmite and stalactite are not directly related to the above.*  They are said to derive from Modern Latin circa 1650 with origins in the Greek "stalagmos, a drop, drip or that which drops".

Odd that both etymological paths end up in enclosed places where time is measured in a tedious, slow, drip...drip...drip...
* OK, I did find one source that said "stalagmos" came from an earlier Greek word, "stalassien" meaning to trickle.  And that this word meandered around the ancient world long enough to bring forth the German root word "stallen".  This word with a general sense of things staying in one place (see stalls in a barn) may have wandered in a side door.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

And they found them in the Spring.....

It was so damned cold last week that in addition to the usual cabin fever activities - and what did people do before Netflix? - I actually took on an annoying entirely optional household task I had been avoiding for years.

An upstairs closet had last been painted sometime in the Eisenhower administration.  Note the tell tale turquoise hue.  Time to pull out every garment, box and bit of miscellany and repaint it.  In the process I discovered that the pole holding up a bunch of hangers was in fact nothing more than the handle of a presumably 1950's broom.

It looks a little better, and at the same time also worse, with all the stuff out of it.

I'm saying 1950's but honestly there was some wiring in there that might go back even farther.  With an old house like ours you don't dare start yanking stuff out, it might still be live!

Now the odd thing about all this is that the project was started when it was 30 degrees below zero (F).  With oil based paint a bit of ventilation is desirable but I was not about to open windows and let in the Arctic blast.  I admit to feeling more than a bit loopy while applying the primer coat.

The project was finished a couple of days later when it was 70 degrees warmer.  But with more snow on the way. 

No wonder people used to go insane when cooped up in ice bound, pre-Netflix cabins; their neighbors arriving in the Spring to find them gibbering madly, huddled in the corner of an upstairs closet.

But in our case such a nicely painted one.