Category Archives: Electronics

Dean Kamen’s Prosthetic "Luke" Arm

What a technical home run. If you need any more motivation to engage in cool robotics projects, just check out the reaction when the test subject figures out he can feed himself for the first time in 26 years. That’s social impact. From the IEEE Spectrum site.

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What a difference 20 Years Makes: 1GB Then and Now

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Indoor Radio-Controlled Plane

Some of you may remember my post last year on the “Butterfly” living room flier from Plantraco Hobbies. Technology is marching on though, with new composite materials and ever more integrated electronics in smaller and smaller packages. Witness the latest in living room RC technology, the Carbon Butterfly. (you can purchase one at the previous link complete with controller and padded carrying case for $299) (hint…hint…anyone planning ahead for my 2007 Birthday/Christmas season…)

Carbon Butterfly
(Check out videos of the Carbon Butterfly in flight here.)

The new version above weighs in at a scarce 3 grams including all of the receiver, rudder actuator, and prop motor hardware despite the addition of the new landing gear. Smaller carbon fiber rods and a redesigned mylar-coated wing comprise the major advances. Here’s the older version for comparison (at 3.6 grams):

The new Carbon Butterfly sports a fully proportional 2-channel controller for both the throttle speed and the rudder actuator, and a nice light gear reduction to drive the prop.

Better-yet, the founder of the indoor flyer community, Michael Hendricksen, has started an indoor flier blog showing how you can make your own miniature actuators with simple coils and magnets!

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and the Plantraco Micro-RC web site has all the supplies and components you could need to build your own miniature airplanes and helicopters and indoor flying pleasure. These sorts of things are great starter projects to get kids excited about electronics, mechanical design, and aeronautics, all at once!

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Maker Faire This Weekend: Don’t Miss It!

This has become one of my favorite events anywhere, anytime. You’ll find a great collection of art, technology, science projects and demonstrations, contests (like the “King of Fling” catapult contest) kits for sale, tools…and of course the people that make and use them! It is a completely unique collection of interesting things and people.

I strongly recommend the Faire to any family that can make it to the San Francisco Bay Area this weekend, not just the nerds among you. There really is something for everyone. Even my one-and-a-half-year-old daughter was enthralled last time around, so don’t miss it!

Click on the picture link above for more info and tickets!

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Weekend Robotics Projects

Don’t miss this week’s Make Magazine blog feature podcast on weekend starter robotics projects with pdf hardcopy support this week. It’s a great source for parts, kits, how-to videos and general tutorial resources. The kits and instructions are PERFECT for first-time electronics hackers and roboticist wanna-be types. The materials costs are modest and the projects can be completed and tested inside a few hours.




The article also includes a few links to some nice sources of parts (particularly the wonderful little pager motors)

and kits for those less inclined to scour the junk bins and create your own, Check out and

The tiny kits follow in the fine tradition set by one of my old MIT acquaintances, Mark Tilden, who’s book entitled “Junkbots, Bugbots & Bots on Wheels” is the canonical must-read source on how to build disassemble all those old Sony Walkmen otherwise gathering dust in the junk drawer and use their component parts to build nifty little artificial critters. You can get Mark’s book here from Amazon.

Create your very own artificial creatures in a weekend? How cool is that?

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Make a Homo-polar Motor in Five Minutes

Here’s a REALLY simple example of how anyone can make a simple motor in about 10 minutes or less from Make Magazine.


Building it is simple. Explaining how it works is a little trickier, as there are no alternating poles or brushes typical of the garden variety motor. Check out the homopolar motor description on Wikipedia, and another example of how to make a homopolar motor here at

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BEAM Vibrobots

The online Make magazine portal just published a nice article on how to make your very own BEAM vibrobots. For those of you unfamiliar with the BEAM movement, the basic notion is to wire up simple circuits that connect photo-sensors almost directly to motors, so that by shining a light on the simple robot, it will scurry around either towards, or away from, the light thereby mimicking any number of insects. And then, of course, there is all the fun and art in arranging the components to look as insectile as possible.

 Vibrobot Standard
The Vibrobot takes this notion to a minimalist extreme by eliminating wheels, and reducing the number of motors to one tiny pager motor with an eccentric weight attached. When light shines on the photo-cell, the motor vibrates, and with proper sprung leg designs, the robot will scurry along in fine insect fashion. And without the wheels, the vibrobots are ever more insect like in form as well.

Vibrobot Partcallout

Here’s a page from the no-doubt forthcoming print edition showing the simple circuit used for these nifty little critters…

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Two Micro-controller Starters

I’m always on the lookout for good starter educational kits for students to learn electronics through their own hacking project, and I hit the mother load this week. First, this month’s Wired magazine had a plug for the new Micro-controller kit from Thames and Kosmos, which you can purchase here at Amazon.

The $136 price tag is a bit steep compared to the raw cost of all the parts, but everything is ready to go with almost no effort or overhead whatsoever, including all the necessary interface cables and whatnot.

Secondly, for those more intrepid (or budget conscious), there is the path for the purist. This link over at Instructables will send you on your way to building your first prototype systems from scratch including your own interface cables. On the up-side, total cost to start doing fun stuff can be managed within a $10 budget or so as long as there is an old PC with a parallel port lying around somewhere. The canonical first project it to light up an LED and control it.

This Instructable also include links to Cornell, where the devices are used in a class, complete with links and blogs about the student’s final projects, and there is an extensive web reference site called AVR Freaks.

Go forth and Compute!

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Moore’s Law Marching On

For those of you unfamiliar with Moore’s law, Gordon Moore, the founder of Intel predicted that semiconductor technology would advance at a rate that doubled the number of transistors that would fit on a chip every 18 months or so.

Now, the University of Delft and IMEC have fabricated a MOSFET device (a type of transistor) with wires so small (around 35 nanometers across, or roughly 1/200 the size of a human hair) that the conductivity and other electronic properties of the material depended on the flow of electrons around a single dopant atom of arsenic.

FinFET transistor

Obviously, classical electromagnetics, which are based on the assumption that materials can be modeled as a continuum with homogeneous properties starts to break down when you need to consider individual atoms. But fortunately, we are headed towards quantum computers which might map very nicely to the quantum atomic properties.

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A Nice Online Electronics Intro: FEEE

Several people have asked me lately about book recommendations for students and high school teachers to learn basic electronics. And while there are plenty of texts suitable for the college student, there are precious few works that can present aspects of electronics in a clearly simple form that is not dumbed-down to the point of silliness and is still fundamentally correct. There are always canonical references such as Horowitz and Hill’s “The Art of Electronics” to help the teachers out, but more than 60% of that material will be virtually out of reach for the typical secondary student.

But just this morning, I stumbled upon a very nice online reference / textbook on introductory electronics called “The Fundamentals of Electrical Engineering and Electronics.”

Although I though the ordering and organization of some of the chapters fell a little out of the sequence I would have used, the material is concise and simply stated, mostly correct, and replete with useful photos, examples and web links to take some of the basic theories and mathematics and translate them into working circuits, complete with descriptions of necessary lab equipment and how to use the tools, meters, scopes, and whatnot.

Any of you would-be circuit or robotics hackers should check it out!

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