Monthly Archives: September 2018

From the Field: Electrical Engineering as a Hobby

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Hello, my name is Adam Carlson and I am addicted to learning.

No really, I am, and that is the fun part! Because of my addictions to learning and creating things, engineering and design were a natural fit. If you couple this with a love of aviation, you get an aerospace engineer. Today, I work for GE Aviation designing jet engines, though because I love learning, I did not stop with aerospace engineering. In my free time, I have taken up learning other branches of engineering. I had, for many years, an interest in electronics. Back in about 2010, I was tired of people telling me that what I wanted to do in electronics was not hard, they just did not have time to help me. I asked myself, “How hard can it be?” (Yes, I know that this is a dangerous state of mind when coupled with a desire to learn.) So I set out to learn electrical engineering.

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What in the world inspired this desire to learn electrical engineering, you might ask? Well in a few short
words: RC submarines. You are probably wondering if I am just trying to pull one over on
you, or if they come with working torpedoes. Yes, RC submarines are a real
thing; yes, we do have submarine races (it is not just a euphemism); and yes, some can fire torpedoes.
As I got more involved with the hobby, the more I saw the wonderful, mechanical claptrap that was
used to control many of the systems in the boats. These systems, though, were often unreliable due to
their mechanical nature and operation in hot and humid environments. I could see that these systems
could easily be simplified and improved upon with the addition of electronics.

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It was at this time that I came across SparkFun. It can be hard when you are trying to learn electronics
from scratch. At the time, there were not a lot of resources that were easily available.
Arduino was really just beginning getting legs, and had not yet achieved the recognition it has today.
SparkFun, with its forum, was a great source of learning. Things like, do I use a linear or switching
regulator? Where can I get a box of assorted components without having to pay a large sum of money
and get 100 of everything?

These things may seem like simple questions to most, but to me at the time, they were not simple.
Since then, I have progressed substantially, including becoming the editor of
Electroschematics.com. I am currently designing a radio receiver (yes, this has been a very long project)
for RC submarines. In the process I picked up a LimeSDR. These are fantastic devices at a really great
price point. They have many advantages, including covering a very large bandwidth of signal spectrum.
The downside is that it really is just a bare board without the nice finishings of a case. For my
application, I plan to use this as a poor man’s VNA. To do this, I need to get a few u.fl to SMA cables,
and a few bare SMA connectors to make a standards set (I plan to follow this link as a reference). The
case will be 3D printed and lined with metallic tape to give the enclosure shielding properties.

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Why go to all this length to get a VNA up and running? Well, for starters, I had a few hundred dollars that I could spare, but not a few thousand dollars to get a “real” VNA. Second, I am addicted to learning. Third, and this is the actual technical reason, submerged antennas not only are too long once submerged, but they go through a change in impedance. There are very few papers out there that will help calculate this. There is software that could be used, but once again, this type of software tends to be tens of thousands of dollars for a license, and that is hard to justify on a hobby budget. So instead, we will go back to old method of using basic principles to get close to a design solution, then use testing to refine that solution. I will let you know what I come up with once I am done.

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The National Robotics Challenge

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Every year for the last seven years I’ve ventured to Ohio for the National Robotics Challenge. It has become one of my favorite events and I think it’s a unique and powerful example of an “open” event in American education.

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Heavy sumo!

The challenge started over 25 years ago as a event put on by the Society for Manufacturing Engineers. The history is best related by the NRC website:

“National Robotics Challenge began as the Society of Manufacturing Engineers Robotic Technology and Engineering Challenge in 1986, under the guidance and inspiration of Tom Meravi, Associate Professor from Northern Michigan University and the late Dr. James Hannemann. The competitions developed into one of the premier robotics and engineering events in the nation. Tragically, Dr. Hannemann passed away suddenly in July 2001, and in 2003, SME announced that the organization was unable to continue sponsorship of the event.

Most thought that this was the end, but as with all things, every end can be a new beginning. This new beginning was realized by three educators from Marion, Ohio. On the bus ride from Rochester to Marion, Ed Goodwin, Ritch Ramey, and Tad Douce discussed the possibilities and support that existed in their community for this type of event. In 2004 the name was changed from SME/RTEC to the National Robotics Challenge. From its humble beginning, with two work cells and two pick and place competitions, the competition now offers twelve robotics contests.
The best is yet to come!”

I met Tad Douce in Baltimore in 2010, and I became fascinated by what he was doing around open robotics and education. From my first visit in 2012 it became clear that this event was special. I was blown away by the range of platforms and application that was in evidence at NRC.

The first year there was a hacked datalogger from a total station survey instrument, running Windows CE next to a LEGO Robotics controller.

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Like they say at Bonneville:“Run what you brung”.

Through the years, the contest has come to embrace an autonomous vehicle contest, which is based on SparkFun’s annual contest. The autonomous vehicle portion is attracting both university and high school teams and grows every year.

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Also running at the event is an IoT challenge based on content SparkFun has worked on with the organizers.

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There are game development and interactivity challenges for middle and high school students that SparkFun is also proud to have developed.

The NRC has seen huge growth in its combat robot contest, and this contest and the sumo robots, as well as Botball, are always a crowd favorites.

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In addition, we usually offer an open wireless cryptography challenge with cool prizes and action-packed fun!

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The manual for 2019’s contest, held April 11-13, is a fantastic place for educators to aim with their classes. I’m already planning for 2019 and looking forward to another great year of competition!

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