Where Do Giant Robots, Modified Lawnmowers, Adaptive Art Tools, and Thereminists Go?

Maker News
Where Do Giant Robots, Modified Lawnmowers, Adaptive Art Tools, and Thereminists Go?
Maker Faire Detroit 2015 at The Henry Ford in Dearborn, Mich. Saturday, July 25, 2015. Gary Malerba/Special To The Henry Ford
You’ve never seen Hot Wheels like Maker Faire Detroit does Hot Wheels.

Maker Faire Detroit, of course. One of the longest-running Maker Faires in the world, Maker Faire Detroit takes place for the seventh year in a row this weekend, July 30 and 31, at The Henry Ford. With nearly 25,000 folks coming out last year to learn, share, and celebrate all forms of making, community support is clearly strong in the area. And what better host than The Henry Ford, which has been recognizing, preserving, and promoting American ingenuity and innovation for decades.

The video from last year’s Faire captures the energy and diversity of projects:

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We asked Shauna Wilson of The Henry Ford to share some highlights we can expect at this year’s Maker Faire Detroit. Here’s what she shared:

We have some really interesting things going on, including a theremin workshop and performances by Dorit Chrysler, MegaBots on the midway, a talk from the Detroit Lawn Mower Gang (they have an amazing story to tell!), and a daily Zot Artz all-abilities interactive art pop-up.

We’ll have a few of the innovators featured on Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation TV show: Chatlight, Drinkable Book, and Soundwave Extinguisher. We also have a new opportunity for educators to connect at Maker Faire Detroit, with a special meet-up on Sunday afternoon. And of course there’s the return of the record-setting, giant Hot Wheels track (pictured above).

A full list of makers and a schedule of lineups are available on the Maker Faire Detroit site.

We were intrigued by Shauna’s highlights and reached out to Dorit Chrysler, Matt Oehrlein of MegaBots, Tom Nardone of Detroit Mower Gang, and Dwayne Szot of Zot Artz to get to know them better.

Dorit Chrysler


Austrian thereminist, composer, producer, and singer Dorit Chrysler‘s passion for the theremin is without a doubt. She cofounded the New York Theremin Society and opened the first theremin school for kids, KidCoolThereminSchool.

Where did you hear about Maker Faire and why did you decide to get involved?
Moogfest provided the connection by meeting Kristen Gallerneaux from The Henry Ford museum there. Maker Faire sounded intriguing and a perfect fit for KidCoolThereminSchool.

How did you first get introduced to the theremin and why is it so appealing to you?
My friend had a theremin for repair at his house. I was instantly fascinated by its unusual interface and dynamic potential!

Do you make your own theremins?
I do not make my own theremins, but at Maker Faire, I’m bringing along Charles Hobbs, whose theremin I am performing on.

What do you have in store for Maker Faire Detroit?
Children and adults will have the opportunity to play and explore this unusual and very creative instrument. I will also give daily concerts to demonstrate a theremin’s musical potential, playing some historic standards as well as contemporary compositions.

What’s one of your favorite audience reactions you’ve gotten?
An orthodox priest in Serbia holding his cross against the theremin to protect his people from the work of the devil — no that was a bit scary, actually. If people are tempted to try it themselves after seeing a performance, my job is done.

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Computer Museum

It’s not hard to guess what Oakland, California based MegaBots, Inc. makes, but just how mega the bots are is truly impressive. And with a tagline like “Making the world more epic, one giant robot at a time,” how could you go wrong? Cofounded by Matt Oehrlein, Gui Cavalcanti, and Brinkley Warren, MegaBots applies top-notch skills to creating the world’s largest piloted robots. Their Mk. II MegaBot debuted at Maker Faire Bay Area in 2015 and is 15 feet tall, weighs in at 12,000 pounds, and can hurl three-pound projectiles at speeds of over 130MPH. We spoke with Matt.

What was the original impetus for starting MegaBots?
MegaBots was born out of all of the video games we played and movies we watched as kids growing up. So many science fiction universes have giant humanoid robots. The Matrix, Avatar, Terminator, Iron Man, Pacific Rim, just to name a few. People expect technology to get to a point where giant humanoid robots are commonplace, and we wanted to make sure that happens within our lifetime.

You have an impressive team involved in your builds. How did the team all come together?
Some of the team have been peripherally connected through combat robotics circles (Battlebots, Robo games, and even FIRST robotics). Others, like Howe & Howe Technologies, we cold-called because we know they’re the best in the business. When you’ve challenged another country to a duel and have put national pride on the line, a lot of people want to help out.

What’s your R+D process for creating new machines?
When we set out to create a robot, we sit down with a concept artist and iterate back and forth on a design that looks badass but is also feasible to build. After that, we sit behind our computers for about four months and nothing happens except CAD, writing software, collecting a ton of datasheets on parts we may use, and putting together a bill of materials.

Then, for another two to three months, we staff up on fabricators, contract out what we can, and build what we have to in-house. This is where the robot begins to take physical shape. After that, we usually hire an artist or special-effects-type person to add paint and other details. This takes a few weeks.

How many bots does MegaBots currently have?
We currently have one complete robot, the Mk. II, and are in the process of building our next robot, the Mk. III.

What do you have in store for Maker Faire Detroit?
At Maker Faire Detroit, we’ll be demonstrating our Mk. II robot, the one that started it all and that you’ve seen in the videos and news articles. We’ll be blasting a junk car with its high-kinetic-energy pneumatic cannons, while also talking about the future of sports, robotics, and entertainment! It’s your childhood dreams come to life!

What other Maker Faires and events have you shown your MegaBots at?
We’ve brought the Mk. II to Maker Faire Bay Area, San Diego Comic-Con, a few conferences, and a university.

What’s one of your favorite reaction you’ve received?
My favorite reaction was this guy at our first Comic-Con. This was when we only had the Mk. I, which was really just the upper half of a robot. He started talking to us about the huge steel cockpit and cannon weapon that towered behind us, thinking it was some kind of movie prop. When we started discussing how this is actually the start of a real giant robot that could be piloted as a multi-ton car-crushing beast, he broke down in tears of joy.

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Detroit Mower Gang

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What do you do when your city runs out of funds and stops maintaining the local parks? For Tom Nardone, founder and gang leader of the Detroit Mower Gang, the answer is clear: You get on your mower and ride. What started as one man trying to lend a hand has transformed into a mighty collective of mowers on a mission.

What was the original impetus for starting the Detroit Mower Gang and how many folks were involved? How has it grown?
The Detroit Mower Gang started as a Detroit mower guy. It was just me initially. I was looking for some volunteer work and the idea of driving a go-kart around in circles seemed appealing. I bought a mower on Craigslist and got started. Now we regularly get 20 to 30 people, and at big events, we have 70 to 80. We can accomplish so much more with more people and equipment. It isn’t unusual for us to mow five parks on a Wednesday evening.

Do you build or modify your mowers?
Yes. Stock mowers are great for mowing grass that is slightly long, but the grass we mow can be chest-high. Also, we deal with a lot more trash than you would see on your lawn. Here are some common modifications:

Trash pick-up buckets and bags: Most of the guys have some way to collect and hold trash attached to their mowers. Simple stuff like a five-gallon bucket on a wire, or a tote attached to the back of your seat using shelf brackets. Combining a bucket with a long-handled gripper and you can pick up trash without getting out of your seat. It really speeds up the process.

Mower deck modifications: Some mowers cut tall, tough grass better than others. Sometimes your mower deck will get clogged up with the cut grass, so Gang members have tried all sorts of things, including modifying blades, cutting larger exits from deck, spraying the inner surface of the deck. Anything we can do to improve the way the mowers cut, we do.

Sliming the tires: There are a lot of sharp objects out there waiting to give you a flat. A lot of Gang members use tire slime to keep punctures away.

Paint: The quality of the custom paint jobs in The Mower Gang isn’t great, but there are a couple of good ones. There is a fighter-plane-style mower, one with flames, and a third with a Trans-Am-style “Fire Chicken” logo on the hood.

Power: One of our members used to be an engine engineer at Ford Motor Company, so he likes to make everything run a little bit snappier.

What are some interesting areas you’ve mowed?
The Dorais Velodrome is the most interesting thing we mow. It’s an abandoned, banked, bicycle racing track. It was constructed in 1969 from poured cement.

What’s the most number of mowers you’ve had running at one time?
We have had 80 people volunteer at once, so I would guess 30 mowers at one time.

What do you have in store for Maker Faire Detroit?
At Maker Faire I’m going to give a talk similar to one I gave at TEDx, entitled “Something is Greater Than Nothing.” I’ll also have my Craftsman Pro-Series tractor on display. I’m working on a unique trash pick-up system for the tractor, so I’m hoping to show that off as well.

What’s one of your favorite reaction you’ve gotten to one of your mowing events?
My favorite reaction is always when the kids come out to play on the playground or swings. They almost always do and it never seems to get old.

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Zot Artz

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Artist, educator, and maker Dwayne Szot believes in the awesome power of art and envisions a world where everyone has access to tools to create art. That’s why he founded Zot Artz, creators of adaptive art tools for children with disabilities.

Where did you hear about Maker Faire and why did you decide to get involved?
I first heard about Maker Faire on the web.

What is your favorite adaptive art tool you’ve made?
This is really a difficult choice. It’s a tie between Major Bubbles and Squirt Me. The expressions of absolute joy that bubbling and squirting brings children is priceless.

What’s your R+D process for creating new machines?
Experience and experiences. Through this awareness I see the need.

What do you have in store for Maker Faire Detroit?
Flash paintings! The first-ever accessible flash paintings.

What’s one of your favorite reaction you’ve gotten to one of your machines?
Gut-busting laughter and shouts of joy.

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See Dorit, Matt, Tom, Dwayne, and hundreds of other makers at Maker Faire Detroit this weekend! All the information you need to join them is on the site.

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I'm a word nerd who loves to geek out on how emerging technology affects the lexicon. I was an editor on the first 40 volumes of MAKE, and I love shining light on the incredible makers in our community. In particular, covering art is my passion — after all, art is the first thing most of us ever made. When not fawning over perfect word choices, I can be found on the nearest mountain, looking for untouched powder fields and ideal alpine lakes.

Contact me at snowgoli@gmail.com or via @snowgoli.

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