Maker Faire: Saphira

Maker Faire: Saphira

“Young Makers” is the theme for this year’s Maker Faire Bay Area, the world’s largest DIY festival, taking place on May 22nd and 23rd at the San Mateo Fairgrounds. Young Makers is a celebration of our future generations of makers as well as the youthful making spirit in each of us. At this year’s Faire, we’re featuring a number of projects made by young makers, including Saphira, an animatronic fire-breathing dragon conceived, constructed, and programmed by two inspirational high school students, Sam DeRose and Alex Jacobson. Sam and Alex took some time out of their project build to chat with us.

1. Tell us about the project you’re bringing to Maker Faire.

Sam DeRose: We have made an animatronic fire-breathing dragon that uses pneumatic cylinders as actuators. It is about 8 feet tall, made entirely out of steel and aluminum. It is controlled using a flight simulator joystick connected through a laptop and then through an Arduino that controls solenoid valves to modulate the airflow to the pneumatic cylinders.

Alex Jacobson: My friend, Sam, and I are building a fire-breathing dragon. He is doing the actual building while I am doing the programing. We need a program because we have pneumatic pistons that are being controlled by a Logitech joystick connected to my computer, which then connects to something called an Arduino. An Arudino is a little programmable circuit board that can control the pneumatic pistons. We have 5 pistons: 3 for the head, 1 for the wings, and 1 for lifting the body of the dragon over a castle-like turret, which it will hide behind when it is off. Then we also have a propane tank hooked up to the dragon’s mouth so that the dragon will breathe FIRE!!


2. How did you hear about Maker Faire and why did you decide to participate?


Alex Jacobson (left) and Sam DeRose (right) collaborating on Saphira.

Sam: I went the first year of the Faire with some friends who bought me a subscription to MAKE magazine the previous year. I’ve been every year since the start. This is my third year as a Maker. The first year we entered a 2ft x 3ft multi-touch table, and the second year we exhibited a Gatling gun version of a potato canon. I decided to participate this year because it has become a tradition in our family.

Alex: I have attended Maker Faire in the Bay Area since it started. I was 9 years old, so I can’t quite remember how my dad heard about the Maker Faire, but all I remember is the soldering class that I took the first year that I went there. I remember that the kids were over the age of 12, and I had to stand really tall when the guy asked me how old I was before we started the class. I wanted to participate because I was always amazed at what everyone else was making, so I wanted to show off something that I made.

3. Tell us about yourself. How did you get started making things and who are your inspirations?

Sam: I’m a sophomore at The Branson School in Marin. I’ve been building things in our garage with my brother and dad for as long as I can remember.

Alex: I think that I started making things first by taking things apart. I always loved to see how everything worked, and so I would take whatever it was apart and figure out what each part did. Then the real challenge was trying to put it back together and have it still work. I think my very first exposure to that was with Legos. I have played with Legos since I was about 3 or 4. That was where I first started to build things. I would get the sets of Legos and put them together; then after that I realized that it was no fun to have the finish product just sitting there. So I would then take it apart and try and figure out how it works.

4. Is your project strictly a hobby or a budding business? Does it relate to your day job?

Sam: It is a hobby — my day job is being a high school student.

Alex: Yes, this is just strictly a hobby, mainly because I am only a freshman in high school, and I don’t YET have a job building things.

5. What new idea (in or outside of your field) has excited you most recently?

Sam: Ray Kurzweil’s book The Age of Spiritual Machines.

Alex: After a few years of building things, I realized that although I do enjoy building things, I like to program things just as much. So, semi-recently, my friend from school showed me a programming language, which was a lot easier and much more concise than something like the common C++ or Java. It is called Python, and is named after Monty Python’s Flying Circus (not the snake). So I have been using Python to do most of my programing, and I have to say, it is much easier learning Python than C++ or Java.

6. What is your motto?

Sam: Be upfront and honest. Tell the whole truth. Don’t lie.

Alex: I don’t think I have a motto, per se, but I would say that my favorite quote is “I reject your reality, and substitute my own!” (from Adam Savage of MythBusters).

7. What advice would you give to the young makers out there just getting started?

Sam: Do what you love to do.

Alex: Well, I am also a young maker, but to other younger makers getting started I would say, just because other makers haven’t done it before doesn’t mean you can’t. That is why I love making things and programming. If you can’t find a program that will do what you want, just make your own!

Thanks, Sam and Alex! Good luck getting the last minute touches dialed in for the Faire and can’t wait to see Saphira in person. For all the information you need about Maker Faire, including buying tickets online, check out the Maker Faire website. For more information about our Young Makers program, check out the Make: Education site. 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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