You know that scene in movies where people go running out into the field and dance in the rain after a long drought? “Our crops are SAVED!”. Or the scene at the end of Dune (yeah, if you don’t know this spoiler by now….)
I feel like that today.
The 2 storm fronts that came through Berlin over the last few weeks completely missed us. We’ve been doing some watering to keep the apple trees and strawberries and garden materials going, but the lawns and fields have been suffering.
Now? A steady, not deluge-rain, cool temperatures, and ahhhhhhhh.!
It’s become sadly apparent that Google Plus, the service we had all hoped would dethrone Facebook and become a more open, useable, and at least mildly privacy aware environment, is rotting on the vine. Features are being spun off into standalone products, and long hoped for features have never materialized.
So I’m falling back to the old standby. A year or two ago I completed rebooting Planet-geek and have been enjoying using it as my primary platform, so I’m going to take the final jump and make the blog my primary posting platform, while letting the fairly awesome SNAP tool from NextScripts repost / share things out to various social networks.
Right now I’m echoing posts to Facebook, Twitter, and Livejournal, but may add other sites going forward (NextScripts supports dozens of different systems). Any requests?
While the FriendsPlus.Me tool I was using was ‘Okay’, I wasn’t happy with the several levels of redirects and “you must source your post from G+” setup. This way, my blog is the authoritative source of my ramblings, just as I want it to be. But I understand if you don’t want to subscribe to my RSS feed or are more comfortable on other platforms, well that’s fine, you’ll still see my happy chatter.
It started innocently enough. A video linked on youtube showing some “pilots” gathered in the woods. An obviously well organized group, with safety crews, a well marked course, and referees. The pilots were several guys sitting in camping chairs, with goofy looking goggles on, or staring intently into small video screens.
Then the racing started, and the viewpoint shifted to the nose of the craft zipping in and out of the trees. It immediately evoked memories of the speeder bikes from Return of the Jedi, tearing in and out and around trees in the forest. The craft in the video were lit up with LEDs that made them glow brightly… even as your competitor passed above you on a fast straight, or swung wide on a turn.
Quickly, other videos started appearing up showing similar craft and activities. People were getting together to race small remote controlled ‘drones’. I was intrigued. These were custom built, complicated radio control models, but I felt they were within my skill set to construct and fly.
I had to do this.
First though, I had to figure out what the heck I was looking at! I was no stranger to radio control aircraft. People have been building planes with cameras attached to them for ages. I knew that in the last year or three, some Makers have build ‘quadcopters’. Small, maneuverable aircraft that could move up, down, sideways, and spin in place either autonomously or via remote control. As I saw these being demontrated, I thought the idea was interesting, but the limited flight time, carrying capacity, and expense were just not worth getting involved in.
Then several things changed.
First, the wide availability of Lithium Polymer, or LiPO batteries. In the Radio Control world, LiPO’s had been gaining ground, and in 2013 they’d reached a density and weight where they made sense on very small, light craft.
Second, small portable HD cameras were becoming more available. By far, the best known are the GoPro Hero Cameras, but more recently, the Mobius camera has become the unit of choice. It’s small, well built, has excellent resolution, and fits well on small flying vehicles.
Last but not least is the availability of relatively inexpensive First Person View, or FPV equipment. FPV had been possible in the past, but the equipment was bulky and expensive. Modern gear can be extremely small and light, and easily installed by a new model builder.
All these things came together to produce what can only be described as a skyrocketing interest in building small, highly maneuverable ‘drones’, getting ‘behind the wheel’ of one (via goggles or video link), and going flying. Or, even more fascinating… going RACING.
I had to do it.
I watched tons of videos on Youtube. This sport is still relatively new. Most races and groups have only been flying for 6-8 months. The equipment design and processes for building and flying are still being worked out, but the basics are pretty well set. I spent my first 2-3 weeks just understanding all the parts of a drone, what was needed, how they worked, and how things came together.
What is commonly known as a “Racing Drone” is a 250mm (that’s corner to corner) lightweight frame with 4 brushless motors on the limbs. The motors are told what to do starting with a Flight Controller, an on board computer that provides stability to the drone, as well as takes commands from the radio receiver, and tells the motors what to do. The Flight Controller (or “FC”) communicates with Electronic Speed Controllers (or “ESC”) – one per motor – that varies the speed of the motor based on commands from the flight controller. Powering all this is a LiPO battery that’s usually set up to provide 5-7 minutes of flight time per charge. The drone receives it’s commands via radio link using a radio receiver, which is paired to a handheld radio transmitter the pilot carries.
That describes the drone platform itself, but if you want to do FPV, you’ll also need a camera (FPV cameras are small and relatively low resolution), a video transmitter and antenna, and a video receiver and display setup.
That, in a nutshell, describes an 250mm FPV Mini Racing Drone. From this basic design, many things can be added or enhanced. Adding an HD camera is very common (the HD camera records the flying sessions for viewing later. The pilot flies just via the FPV camera) – this is where the cool videos come from. Adding other features such as a GPS receiver, a system that can interface the flight controller data with the FPV display (called an On Screen Display, or OSD) can let the pilot see realtime data from the drone as it’s flying (Altitude, speed, position, battery level, distance from pilot, even an indicator showing the pilot how to get the drone back to them). These are fun additions, but aren’t required for racing (some pilots will argue having all that junk on the OSD can just distract you from the racing).
In addition to the parts needed to build a drone, every pilot has a whole infrastructure of materials to make the flying possible. A LiPO battery charger is required. Because LiPO batteries are pretty complex, the chargers tend to be fairly involved pieces of equipment, and pilots need to understand how a LiPO works, how it’s rated, what configuration it’s in, how to charge it, etc.
Spare parts are also a requirement. It’s common to break props many times a day, so keeping spares is a necessity. Zip ties, velcro straps, spare motors, ESC’s, these are all tools in the arsenal.
But enough about that, how’d I get from “What a cool thing!” to being out and flying?
So a week ago I traded in my Jeep Wrangler for a Chevy Volt. It was a hard decision, but made sense on so many levels. I have a long commute (70 miles round trip), do other road trips, etc. And while I’ll miss being able to bang around in the woods and romp through the mud, the Volt has been… all things are considered… pretty damned awesome!
Lets start with the run down. In the last week, I’ve driven about 450 miles. In that time, I’ve burned a grand total of 2 gallons of gas. And lets be clear, this isn’t because I drive carefully or anything – this thing is fun as heck to drive, and tearing along an on-ramp or powering around someone in traffic is a ton of fun. This is just using basic energy management. At night, I plug the Volt into an normal 110v outlet in my garage, which, by morning, means I have a full charge – a battery range of between 40 and 45 miles. When I get to work, weather permitting and no one is in the parking spot near the outlet, I plug in there as well. 6 hours at work is enough to top off the battery and get me home again.
If I don’t get a chance to plug it in? That’s okay… when the battery runs out, the Volt functions like a ‘normal’ car and runs on the engine, giving a respectable 40mpg.
That’s the basics. Now lets get into the cool geeky stuff.
The car doesn’t look like an EV. It’s not a Prius, it’s not a Leaf, it’s not an Insight, and it’s sure as heck not a Tesla. On the outside, it just looks like your standard smallish sedan. On the inside it’s modern as heck, with 2 color displays, schwoopie internal lines, and comfortable details. I’m 6’6″ tall, and my son is 6’2. We fit just fine, though if we’re hauling tall kids in the back seats, things can get cramped. Having said that, even the tall kids find they have enough headroom in the back – it’s usually footspace gets a little tricky. The trunk is certainly smaller than the Jeep (duh), but the car is a hatchback, and while I wouldn’t want to haul furniture with it, I can carry whatever project I’m working on in the back without much trouble.
Something I hear from other EV car drivers, I’ll pass on here. If you’ve never driven an EV car, find a friend who has one, and ask to take their car for a quick drive. There is nothing in my experience that compares with driving a modern, comfortable automobile under electric power. It is almost silent, the acceleration is smooth and clean (and strong!!). It’s almost impossible not to smile when pulling this car out of the garage and heading off down the road. It feels space-age. We may not have flying cars yet, but this sure feels like we’re getting there.
Too many people think of the Chevy Volt like a Prius or similar. An extremely practical, un-fun car. Let me tell you folks, this car is seriously fun to drive. The acceleration is phenomenal when you ‘drop the hammer’ as they used to say. According to the interwebz, the 0-60 time is 8.7 seconds, (compared with the plugin Prius at 10.5 seconds. The Leaf zips at 7.4 seconds – it’s a much lighter car with no engine). My Wrangler would have done that in 10.4 seconds, and burned half a gallon of gas doing it.
This brings up another point. When I drive the Volt aggressively, I don’t feel like I’m doing damage to it, or to the environment, or anything. I’m using more battery power, sure, but unlike a gas engine (which runs less efficiently when heavily loaded, ie burning more hydrocarbons), the Volt just runs the battery down a little more. You can wildly vary the efficiency of an internal combustion engine based on driving style, and by efficiency I mean “how much crap you blow out your tailpipe”, but the Volt? The only efficiency you’ll hurt is how long your battery will last until it needs a recharge.
Lets talk about some more geeky things.
The Volt is an EV car. I spend 95% of my time driving it on batteries only. As such, I’m always looking for ways to not use the gas engine. I’ve signed up on the ChargePoint network, which gives me a little RFID card, a mobile app, and a network of Level 2 charging stations where I can top off my battery while having some coffee. A full Level 2 charge of the Volt takes a few hours (An hour on a level 2 charger adds about 10 miles of range to the battery). So while electric ‘refueling’ is still a ways off, it’s nice to know I can stop off for lunch somewhere and plug in the Volt for a while while I grab a burger.
The other win is the OnStar mobile app. While I’m skeptical of any of the ‘big manufacturer’ tools, GM’s Onstar stuff is pretty good, and their mobile app is super-handy. From my phone I can check the status of the car – how the battery is doing, when it’ll be charged, how much gas is in it, heck, even what the tire pressures are. More excitedly, I can remote start it. In nasty weather, I can tell the Volt to power up and start warming the cabin. It’ll do this purely on ‘shore power’ (drawing from the power connector, not the engine), so it’ll be nice and toasty when I’m ready to leave, without sacrificing range.
While I went into this change for purely practical reasons, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how much I’m enjoying the car. It’s performance is great, it’s comfortable, and I can’t argue with the cost of operation. One interesting side effect… I get bothered when I’m running on gasoline. 95%of the time I’m emitting zero pollutants. No CO2, no hydrocarbons, not even making a lot of noise. But when that engine starts (which is nearly silent, I notice it mostly because my dashboard changes configuration), I start feeling dirty. I’m BURNING OIL!!! I picture a bucket of gas on fire. Ewwww. Then I look around at all the other cars on the road and go “They’re all doing this right now. Why?”
Maybe it’s the shiny… maybe people are afraid of EV cars, or just don’t understand them, but for me, I wonder why there isn’t a while hogged march toward everyone using cars like this. There are a lot of hybrid cars on the market right now, but they’re in the ‘we use an electric motor to make the gas motor use less gas’ category. Why isn’t this sort of design more prevalent?
8 months ago my venerable VW Passat became unmaintainable. It required a new oil pump, which was going to run around $2000. It had been good for me for 4 years, but with 140,000 miles on it, I was concerned about shoveling more cash into it.
I’d always wanted a Jeep. Heck, what kid didn’t? So I shopped around and eventually bought a 2012 Jeep Sahara Unlimited. It had all the bells and whistles, and I had a blast with it. Romping in the woods, plowing through snow in the winter, it was a big Tonka toy.
Eventually though, that Tonka toy, while still fun, was getting impractical. I drive 70 miles a day for work, on a highway, with longer trips up to NH, RI, and out to the Cape. A big off road vehicle that gets 18mpg is not a commuter car. I was spending too much on gas, too much on the car, and it became apparent it wasn’t the right type of vehicle for my day to day ride. With a heavy heart, I realized it was time to switch.