Maker Faire Bay Area: Team Viper Interview

Maker News
Team Viper

Team Viper

With 23 days left in our countdown to Maker Faire Bay Area, taking place on May 19 and 20 in San Mateo, the heat is on! This year we have over 600 maker entries, and as we hustle to produce what will undoubtedly be the Greatest Show and Tell on Earth, makers are burning the midnight oil to get their projects in top shape to share with thousands of fellow makers and enthusiasts.

One crew of bright young makers who’ve embarked on a monumental project of epic proportion go by the name Team Viper, five high school students who are all Maker Faire veterans. Team Viper is comprised of John Boyer (16), Alex Jacobson (16), Joseph DeRose (13), Sam Frank (16), Sam DeRose (17) (pictured above, left to right), and with help from their dedicated mentors, they’re bringing a project that’s sure to blow your mind. The Viper is a full-motion flight simulator built into the fuselage of a Piper PA-28 plane, complete with 360-degree rotation on both the pitch and roll axes, as well as a fully immersive flying environment inside. We caught up with these busy gentlemen to get a preview of The Viper.

1. Describe what role each of you play, as well as how you each developed the skills you bring to the team.

Alex Jacobson: Each of us has a sort of general role which we are well-suited for because it’s in a particular field we’re interested in. Sam F. and I are doing working on the software and electronics because that’s what we enjoy and have done in the past. Joe has been working on filming and documenting the entire project, and creating any visual or audio effects that go in the plane. John and Sam D. are working on the hardware side, like getting The Viper to roll, because those are the sorts of skills that Sam D. and John have. However, even though we have particular fields that we enjoy most, that doesn’t mean it’s the only thing we did on the project. We made Sam D. do some coding and made John work on the electronics because they weren’t doing anything at the time, and we’re all just trying to pitch in together. The skills that back each one of us are mostly self-taught or taught to us by our parents. Coding was something that Sam F. and I taught ourselves, but when we starting having to apply it to this project, Tony [DeRose] had to teach us and show us some of the more advanced concepts. We all help each other out and learn from each other to get this project done, because if we tried to just separate the entire thing and assign each person certain jobs and not collaborate we would never get this done.

Sam DeRose: I’ve helped with a lot of the design and physical construction of The Viper. I’ve also been responsible for a lot of the electrical and electronic aspects. I’ve liked making things for as long as I can remember. I’ve been developing skills for many years. The first year I exhibited a project at the Faire was when I was in 8th grade, though I had been been building things from a much earlier age.

Sam Frank: Each of us are assigned to different roles, but many of us have been known to delve into subjects we were not originally skilled in. The Viper is not only a fun project, but it has also been an incredible learning experience for each of us. Personally, I’m skilled in software development, so I was originally assigned some of that along with Alex. We’ve also been working a lot on electronics and Arduino interfacing and programming, something that I had very little knowledge about prior to the project, but have since become quite proficient in. I’ve taught myself most of what I know now in terms of programming, but have absorbed a great deal of information from my peers and mentors on the project.

Joseph DeRose: I am the media director and I create the promotional and weekly update videos. I also make the audio clips and visual elements that play in the cockpit.

Team Viper

2. How did the team come together, and what’s the most important thing you’ve learned about collaborating on a major project like this?

AJ: Our team sort of grew together out of two teams: one from two years ago and one from last year. I worked with Sam D. and Tony on Saphira two years ago, and by that time it was their third Maker Faire project. Last year I worked with Sam F. and John, who, like me, go to Bay School in The Presidio, on Fire Jam, again for Maker Faire. This year we brought the two teams together to create an even more ambitious project: The Viper.

SF: The Young Maker Program is what brought us together on this project. Prior to The Viper, Alex, John, and I all worked on something called Fire Jam, which was a Rock Band controlled fire-shooting candelabra. The previous year, Alex worked with Sam D. on Saphira, an animatronic fire-breathing dragon. By far the most important thing I have personally learned from the project has been the importance of teamwork and collaborative thinking. Much of what has been accomplished would not have been possible without every team member’s input.

Team Viper

3. How did the idea for the project originate? What was your prototyping and R&D process?

SD: Four years ago, on a family trip to Washington D.C., we rode on a flight simulator at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. That simulator could roll 360 degrees and had limited but agile performance on the pitch axis. That flying experience excited us so much that we spent the rest of the trip dreaming up designs for our own simulator that we thought would provide an even better experience by having 360-degree rotation on the pitch axis as well. Fast forward to this past summer when we were watching the Battlestar Galactica series on DVD. The series re-inspired us to begin thinking again about a flight simulator, this time themed after the Viper Mark VII from the series. We’ve put a lot of time and energy into building Lego prototypes and main CAD models. We’ve also generated dozens of pages of design sketches based on concept art from the TV show.

4. Where did you source the Piper PA-28 fuselage? Give us the details of the main hardware components involved in The Viper.

AJ: We found an airplane graveyard in Sacramento and took a few trips there, and eventually found a plane that fit the size requirements that we determined. We then went up there one last time with a pickup truck and drove it back home to San Rafael. The other important parts are things like the computer that I built, the monitors that were donated to us, the entire frame that carries the plane, and the motors that rotate the entire thing in two directions. Other, more aesthetic things include our dashboard inside the plane, which has tons of buttons and lights that you interact with, and two arm rests that hold the joystick and thruster to control the plane.

SD: We built outward from the interior staring with the installation of the cockpit embellishments, including a Recaro racing seat and six-point harness. Next we had the motion platform fabricated with steel tubing. Driving the movement of the platform are two 1HP motors. One of the main challenges was getting power and data into the cabin. Since the simulator can rotate continuosly on two axes, you can’t just run cables from the ground into the cabin. To tackle this, we used components called slip rings that allow for electrical signals to be transmitted through rotating joints. For control, we’re are using five Arduinos, two PCs, two iPhones, and one iPad that are networked together.

Team Viper

5. Tell us about the fully immersive environment you’re creating for the interior.

AJ: Inside the cockpit we have three screens in front of you, which displays the game called Flight Gear that you play as you ride in The Viper. We have a racing seat with a 6-point harness to keep you strapped in tight so you stay safe when you go all the way upside down. There is also the dashboard, which has two iPhones and an iPad displaying virtual sensors and things like that, lights, and also LEDs so that you feel like you’re in a real Piper airplane. Once you get in, we have a door that we put on so that the only thing you can see is the monitors, and the rest of the outside world is completely blacked out.

SD: In the cockpit we not only have a realistic arrangement of three 22″ high-def computer monitors displaying the virtual world in which the pilot flies around in, but we also outfitted the cabin with a joystick, thruster, and custom intsrument panel complete with three displays, and dozens of buttons and LEDs. We’ve also put a lot of energy into theming all other visible surfaces in order to create a convincing experience for the pilot. Speakers in the cabin will play game sounds that we’re recording from the TV show. The helmet the pilot wears is equipped with a com link to the operator on the ground. The only senses we don’t control are taste and smell — that’s for Maker Faire 2013.

SF: We’ve been loosely basing the interior off of the many Viper models from BSG, but also incorporating a bunch of other science fiction and actual airplane elements. The cockpit includes a total of five displays, three of which are high-resolution monitors to provide a very immersive experience. We want the pilot to feel like they’re really in a Viper, and by providing an environment which is not only believable but a pleasure to use, we can definitely achieve the level of immersion we’re looking for.

6. You’ve gotten an amazing amount of publicity and support around this project. Describe how crowd funding has been a game changer for this year’s build.

SD: In previous years the project costs have been mostly manageable. From the beginning of this project we knew we’d need external support. Originally we were planning to rely on corporate donations, but as we got deeper into the project, Kickstarter seemed like a better alternative. As soon as we put up the Kickstarter page the thing took off. We ended up raising over $11,000 in a month.

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7. Your Maker Faire projects get more elaborate every year. How has the experience of sharing your builds with thousands of like-minded makers fueled what you create?

SD: The driving force for me isn’t to show off at Maker Faire. I build things because I love it. However, knowing the project will be exhibited at the Faire influences certain decisions like safety concerns, theatricality, etc.

JD: Maker Faire provides a deadline and incentive to build something great before time runs out. Without Maker Faire we wouldn’t have a goal, and our projects would most likely be left unfinished, rusting in a pile in the garage.

8. Your project is a great example of dreaming big. What advice do you have for other young makers who are inspired by your build?

SD: When I first starting building things it didn’t take long to realize the complexity of the projects I could make. The simpler things worked out, and the more complicated things didn’t. However, years of these kinds of activities have pushed the bar higher. Even now, with 10 people working vigorously (half of them adults), 8 months doesn’t seem like enough time to accomplish everything we envision. That being said, if you think you’d like to be doing projects like this, start small and don’t be hard on yourself when you fail. That’s when all the learning takes place.

JD: Don’t jump into something you haven’t thought a lot about. Start with small projects, working your way up to bigger projects.

Thanks for the inspiration, Team Viper! If this is what they’re building now, imagine what they’ll be making five years from now.

To check out The Viper in action and join us at the Faire, head over to the Maker Faire website for all the information you need, including how to pick up early bird tickets. See you there!

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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 or via @snowgoli.

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