Fighting Bots, Pinball, Emulators, and More at Maker Faire Denver

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Fighting Bots, Pinball, Emulators, and More at Maker Faire Denver

Despite Colorado’s massive maker community, Maker Faire Denver only became a featured faire as of this year. Sparkfun’s annual Autonomous Vehicle Competition, a multifaceted robotics competition with a heavy dose of humor thrown in, is partially responsible for this.

There are three different competitions in the AVC: Speed Demons (vehicles must get around the course as fast as they can while dodging the various obstacles), Logistics (vehicles must complete specific tasks while running the course that mimics warehouse robots or autonomous delivery vehicles), and Car Wars, (vehicles must carry a human passenger whose task is to fire a nerf gun at targets along a track while not spilling any of the coffee from the cup they are carrying). You can see the full AVC 2017 rules on their website.

Did we mention the obstacles on the AVC course? This is the moving pedestrian, wearing this year’s event shirt.

Obstacles are hard.

Competitors on the starting line for one of the heat races on Sunday morning. TwoPotato, the self balancing robot on the left was a crowd favorite.

Not many cars opted to take the jump obstacle, but this one took it every single run. Sweet.

Training the driving model for the Car Wars competition is a pretty silly looking affair.

But when you get it right, you nail it.

One of my favorite exhibits at Maker Faire Denver was this tiny, tabletop manufacturing facility that was designed to churn out wooden massage rollers in short order. It takes the stock of wooden hemispheres, registers them, and then drills and glues a wooden dowel to add as an axle. It then fits them to a mounting pin before compressing them all together. It was designed by Ethan Milligan, a high school sophomore. I got a chance to shoot a quick video with Ethan, mostly because I couldn’t get enough of seeing this thing in action.

Beyond the Autonomous Vehicle Competition, the greater Denver area is home to a huge number of maker and hackerspaces, and many of them had a number of impressive projects on display. Solid State Depot, based in Boulder, CO, had a number of electronics projects to show, like this massive 11-segment display that ran a high-low number guessing game.

Meanwhile, another member of the space noted that these Leapfrog handheld game systems ran Linux on ARM processors, which could easily be hacked to run other software – and the hardware was ideal as a portable emulator for NES and SNES games.

The Longmont Tinkermill had a number of impressive cosplay and prop pieces on display, like this beautifully weathered Endor Commando Helmet, and these Police Blasters from the film The Fifth Element.

Stephen Chavez (left) and Stephen Chrobi (right) are working on a pretty outstanding project together. Stephen Chavez has limited mobility and doesn’t vocalize, but he wanted the ability to walk and talk with people – a simple task that most of us likely take for granted. So together they began hacking Chavez’s wheelchair control systems. After reverse engineering the systems they added a Raspberry Pi into the mix so that Chavez could control the chair from a number of devices, including his smartphone, or from his laptop. they’ve also added some sensors and machine intelligence so that the chair can detect someone walking alongside him – keeping the laptop screen visible in his companion’s eyeline all the while.

When they’re not hacking wheelchairs, they’re both security experts. Most electric wheelchairs operate on the CANbus protocol, adopted from similar systems from automobiles. As it turns out, CANbus is notoriously insecure, and firmware attacks on the hardware could be as simple to implement as plugging in a USB drive to the chair when no one is looking. In the future they have plans to harden the security of the firmware on wheelchairs to prevent nefarious attacks before they happen.

Kevin Holmes of 4-Mation is developing a kit to allow people to make their own 3D Zoetropes. If you’re not familiar, 3D Zoetropes use an array of models on a rotating platter to create the illusion of motion. As the platter spins, strobe lights expose each frame of the animation to your eye, creating the illusion. Kevin has created a custom control board to time the strobes – it also uses an ESP8266 chip so that you can remotely control and tune your animation using your phone.

The other half of the Sparkfun AVC 2017 competition is their Robot Combat tournament. Similar to Battlebots, these are remote controlled robots that are separated into a number of weight classes – 1 lb. Ant Weights, 1 lb. Plastic Ants made strictly from 3D printed plastic parts, 3 lb. Beetle weights, 18 lb. Hobby Weights, and 30 lb. Feather Weights. The last two fought in a newly-refurbished 16′ x 16′ cage, complete with a Sparkfun piñata hung in the center.

Above are some of the entries in the Beetle Weight bracket. Many of them had bodies made from UHMW, the same plastic that’s typically used to make cutting boards. Many of them were hand cut with tools as simple as jigsaws. It’s dangerously inspiring to see such fierce robots built so simply – I can’t wait to get some motors together and start building one of my own. And while the heavier robots made some of the biggest bangs of the weekend, the smaller brackets featured some incredible competition.

FPV Drone Racing is always a massive attraction at any Maker Faire, but some smaller events just don’t have the real estate to give them a home. Enter Tiny Whoop, an FPV-capable quadcopter that fits into the palm of your hand – and a racing obstacle course that fit into their 15′ x 25′ netted booth space.

Fun With Pinball is an exhibit dedicated to helping people understand the world of electromechanical pinball machines. Back in the 60’s and 70’s, pinball games had all the gameplay sophistication of modern machines, but their game state was maintained entirely without the help of transistors, computers, or solid state storage – it was managed entirely by solenoids, relays, and mechanical devices. In the exhibit, Mark Gibson has presented many of the mechanisms that went into these games as a single interaction – you can actuate them yourself with buttons that allow you to see how the mechanics take place. I chatted with Mark at length about his exhibit.

Not every exhibit needs to be so high-tech. Despite the headliners of the Autonomous Vehicles and Combat Robots at Maker Faire Denver, there were a number of traditional crafts on display as well – with plenty of fresh inspiration added into the mix.

These folks were teaching attendees how to make chainmail – as well as how to incorporate pixel art designs into your chainmail with different colored anodized rings.

If you prefer a lighter weight shirt, you can also learn some screen printing techniques while getting a freshly made shirt in the exact color you choose.

One of my favorite exhibits was from Meow Wolf, an artist collective. They had an interactive experience and sticker champions based on Santa Fe, NM. As part of their expansion into Denver, they brought a number of their smaller pieces to Maker Faire, including these beautiful re-textured skateboards and action figures, and a number of interactive small art pieces powered by tiny circuits.

That’s all I got! I had a great time meeting the awesome people at Maker Faire Denver, and I hope to come back next year.

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Video producer for Make:, also tinkerer, motorcyclist, gamer. Reads the comments. Uses tools, tells stories. Probably a human. Tweets @photoresistor

View more articles by Tyler Winegarner


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