Converting an Electric Scooter to Lithium Batteries and Disabling the Safeties

There’s a bunch of different electric scooters available nowadays, including those hoverboards that keep catching fire. [TK] had an older Razor E300 that uses lead acid batteries. After getting tired of the low speeds and 12 hour charge times, [TK] decided it was time to swap for lithium batteries.

The new batteries were sourced from a Ryobi drill. Each provides 18 V, giving 36 V in series. The original batteries only ran at 24 V, which caused some issues with the motor controller. It refused to start up with the higher voltage. The solution: disable the safety shutdown relay on the motor controller by bridging it with a wire.

With the voltage issue sorted out, it was time for the current limit to be modified. This motor controller uses a TI TL494 to generate the PWM waveforms that drive a MOSFET to provide variable power to the motor. Cutting the trace to the TL494’s current sense pin removed the current limit all together.

We’re not saying it’s advisable to disable all current and voltage limits on your scooter, but it seems to be working out for [TK]. The $200 scooter now does 28 km/h, up from 22 km/h and charges much faster. With gearing mods, he’s hoping to eke out some more performance.

After the break, the full conversion video.

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All This Bike Needs Is Some Snow!

It’s safe to say that the southern UK is not known for its winter snowfall. If you have lived through a British February then the chances are you’ll know a lot about rain and grey skies.

Happily this hasn’t deterred [Stuart]. Ever the optimist, he’s turned a pile of scrap metal and an unloved mountain bike into a fully functional ski-bike, and he’s just ready to go should the jet stream deliver a covering of the white stuff on the Thames Valley.

Using the facilities of rLab – Reading Makerspsce (he’s also a founder member of the up-and-coming Newbury and District Hackspace), [Stuart] didn’t just bodge together his “iCycle”. Instead he’s made it a really high quality build, with CNC’d aluminium fork stanchions to mount his skis, and foot pegs that are engineered not to let him down on the slopes. Best of all, the bike is nearly all made from scrap materials, only the bearings, axles and paint were brought in for the project.

Skiing hasn’t been featured very often in our coverage of the world of makers, however we have featured a skiing robot, back in 2009.

Where are all the Camless Engines?

Electric cars are all the rage lately, but let’s not forget about the old standby – internal combustion. The modern internal combustion engine is a marvel of engineering. Today’s engines and surrounding systems have better power, greater fuel economy, and lower emissions than anything that has come before. Centuries’ worth of engineering hours have gone into improving every aspect of the engine – with one notable exception. No automotive manufacturer has been able to eliminate the engine’s camshaft in a piston powered-production vehicle. The irony here is that camless engines are relatively easy to build. The average hacker could modify a small four-stroke engine for camless operation in their workshop. While it wouldn’t be a practical device, it would be a great test bed for experimentation and learning.

Suck, Squeeze, Bang, Blow

dohcA multi-cylinder gasoline engine is a complex dance. Hundreds of parts must move in synchronicity. Valves open and close, injectors mist fuel, spark plugs fire, and pistons move up and down. All follow the four-stroke “Intake, Compression, Combustion, Exhaust” Otto cycle. The camshaft controls much of this by opening and closing the engine’s spring-loaded intake and exhaust valves. Lobes on the shaft press on tappets which then move the valve stems and the valves themselves. The camshaft itself is driven at half the speed of the crankshaft through timing gears, chains, or a belt. Some valve trains are relatively simple – such as overhead cam engines. Others, such as the cam-in-block design, are more complex, with pushrods, rockers, and other parts required to translate the movement of the cam lobe to movement at the valve.

Exactly when, and how fast a valve opens is determined by the profile of the cam lobe. Auto racing and performance enthusiasts often change camshafts to those with more aggressive profiles and different timing offsets depending on the engine’s requirements. Everything comes at a cost though. A camshaft machined for maximum power generally won’t idle well and will make the engine harder to start. Too aggressive a lobe profile can lead to valve float, where the valves never fully seat at high RPM.

Myriad Solutions

vanosEngine manufacturers have spent years working around the limitations of the camshaft. The results are myriad proprietary solutions. Honda has VTEC, short for Variable Valve Timing and Lift Electronic Control. Toyota has VVT-i. BMW has VANOS, Ford has VCT. All these systems provide ways to adjust the valve action to some degree. VANOS works by allowing the camshaft to slightly rotate a few degrees relative to its normal timing, similar to moving a tooth or two on the timing chain. While these systems do work, they tend to be mechanically complex, and expensive to repair.

The simple solution would be to go with a camless engine. This would mean eliminating the camshaft, timing belt, and most of the associated hardware. Solenoids or hydraulic actuators open and close the valves in an infinitely variable number of ways. Valves can even be held open indefinitely, effectively shutting down a cylinder when max power isn’t necessary.

So why aren’t we all driving camless engines? There are a few reasons. The advantages of camless engines to camshaft engines are analogous to the advantages of electronic fuel injection (EFI) vs carburetors. At the core, a fuel injector is a solenoid controlled valve. The fuel pump provides constant pressure. The engine control unit (ECU) fires the injectors at just the right time to inject fuel into the cylinders.The computer also leaves the valves open long enough so that the right amount of fuel is injected for the current throttle position. Electronically this is very similar to what would be required for a camless engine. So what gives?

22R-e, an early EFI engine
Toyota’s celebrated 22R-E, an early EFI engine

Hackers in their 30’s and beyond will remember that until the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, the carburetor was king. Companies had been experimenting with EFI since the 1950’s. The system didn’t become mainstream until the stiff pollution laws of the 70’s came into effect. Making a clean, fuel-efficient carbureted engine was possible, but there were so many mechanical and electronic actuators required that the EFI was a better alternative. So the laws of the 70’s effectively regulated carburetors out of existence. We’re looking at much the same thing with camless engines. What’s missing are the regulations to force the issue.

All the big manufacturers have experimented with the camless concept. The best effort to date has been from Freevalve, a subsidiary of Koenigsegg. They have a prototype engine running in a Saab. LaunchPoint Technologies have uploaded videos showing some impressive actuator designs LaunchPoint is working with voice coils, the same technology which moves the heads in your hard drive.
None of this means that you can’t have a camless engine now – companies like Wärtsilä and Man have engines commercially available. However, these are giant diesel engines used to drive large ships or generate power. Not exactly what you’d want to put in a your subcompact car! For the hacker set, the best way to get your hands on a camless engine today is to hack one yourself.

Ladies and gentlemen, start hack your engines!

cam1Simple, single-cylinder camless engines are relatively easy to build. Start with a four stroke overhead valve engine from a snowblower, scooter, or the like. Make sure the engine is a non-interference model. This means that it is physically impossible for the valves to crash into the pistons. Add a power source and some solenoids. From there it’s just a matter of creating a control system. Examples are all over the internet. [Sukhjit Singh Banga] built this engine as part of a college project. The control system is a mechanical wheel with electric contacts, similar to a distributor cap and rotor system. [bbaldwin1987’s] Camless Engine Capstone project at West Virginia University uses a microcontroller to operate the solenoids. Note that this project uses two solenoids – one to open and one to close the valve. The engine doesn’t need to rely on a spring for closure. [Brian Miller] also built a camless engine for college, in this case Brigham Young University Idaho Camless Engine. [Brian’s] engine uses hall effect sensors on the original camshaft to fire the solenoids. This route is an excellent stepping stone before making the jump to full electronic control.

It wouldn’t take much work to expand these projects to a multi-cylinder engine. All we’re waiting for is the right hacker to take up the challenge!

Adding Position Control To An Open Source Brushless Motor Driver

Brushless motors are everywhere now. From RC planes to CNC machines, if you need a lot of power to spin something really fast, you’re probably going to use a brushless motor. A brushless motor requires a motor controller, and for most of us, this means cheap Electronic Speed Controllers (ESC) from a warehouse in China. [Ben] had a better idea: build his own ESC. He’s been working on this project for a while, and he’s polishing the design to implement a very cool feature – position control.

We’ve seen [Ben]’s work on his custom, homebrew ESC before. It is, by any measure, a work of art. It’s capable of driving brushless and brushed motors with a powerful STM32F4 microcontroller running ChibiOS that’s able to communicate with other microcontrollers through I2C, UART, and CAN bus. If you want to build anything with a motor – from a CNC machine to an RC helicopter to an electric long board – this is the motor controller for you.

[Ben]’s latest update considers position encoders. Knowing how fast a motor is turning is very important to knowing how fast a wheel is turning, how much torque the motor is generating, and an awesome step in building the finest motor controller ever made.

Like the last update, [Ben] demonstrates the great control program written for this ESC. This GUI programs the microcontroller on the controller, with protection from high and low voltages and currents, high RPMs, duty cycle changes, and support for regenerative braking.

Thanks [Dudelbert] for sending this one in.

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Ford Explorer Lives again as a Jurassic Truck

After Jurassic World came out and interest in Jurassic Park took off, [Voicey] decided he just had to make his very own Jurassic Park tour vehicle. Only problem? He lives in the UK and Ford Explorers aren’t exactly common there.

Wanting to keep it as movie-accurate as possible, he knew he had to get a first generation Explorer, and luckily, he managed to find one on an American car Facebook page. He bought it and got to work.

The first step was building custom bumper and brush guards, which he re-purposed from a Land Rover. Then he had a lot of painting to do. A lot.

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Why No Plane Parachutes? And Other Questions.

This week I was approached with a question. Why don’t passenger aircraft have emergency parachutes? Whole plane emergency parachutes are available for light aircraft, and have been used to great effect in many light aircraft engine failures and accidents.

But the truth is that while parachutes may be effective for light aircraft, they don’t scale. There are a series of great answers on Quora which run the numbers of the size a parachute would need to be for a full size passenger jet. I recommend reading the full thread, but suffice it to say a ballpark estimate would require a million square feet (92903 square meters) of material. This clearly isn’t very feasible, and the added weight and complexity would no doubt bring its own risks.

Continue reading “Why No Plane Parachutes? And Other Questions.”

32C3: Dieselgate — Inside the VW’s ECU

[Daniel Lange] and [Felix Domke] gave a great talk about the Volkswagen emissions scandal at this year’s Chaos Communication Congress (32C3). [Lange] previously worked as Chief architect of process chain electronics for BMW, so he certainly knows the car industry, and [Domke] did a superb job reverse-engineering his own VW car. Combining these two in one talk definitely helps clear some of the smog around the VW affair.

[Lange]’s portion of the talk basically concerns the competitive and regulatory environments that could have influenced the decisions behind the folks at VW who made the wrong choices. [Lange] demonstrates how “cheating” Europe’s lax testing regime is fairly widespread, mostly because the tests don’t mimic real driving conditions. But we’re not sure who’s to blame here. If the tests better reflected reality, gaming the tests would be the same as improving emissions in the real world.

As interesting as the politics is, we’re here for the technical details, and the reverse-engineering portion of the talk begins around 40 minutes in but you’ll definitely want to hear [Lange]’s summary of the engine control unit (ECU) starting around the 38 minute mark.

[Domke] starts off with a recurring theme in our lives, and the 32C3 talks: when you want to reverse-engineer some hardware, you don’t just pull the ECU out of your own car — you go buy another one for cheap online! [Domke] then plugged the ECU up to a 12V power supply on his bench, hooked it up, presumably to JTAG, and found a bug in the firmware that enabled him to dump the entire 2MB of flash ROM into a disassembler. Respect! His discussion of how the ECU works is a must. (Did you know that the ECU reports a constant 780 RPM on the tacho when the engine’s idling, regardless of the actual engine speed? [Domke] has proof in the reverse-engineered code!)

The ECU basically takes in data from all of the car’s sensors, and based on a number of fixed data parameters that physically model the engine, decides on outputs for all of the car’s controls. Different car manufacturers don’t have to re-write the ECU code, but simply change the engine model. So [Domke] took off digging through the engine model’s data.

Long story short, the driving parameters that trigger an emissions reduction exactly match those that result from the EU’s standardized driving schedule that they use during testing — they’re gaming the emissions tests something fierce. You’ve really got to watch the presentation, though. It’s great, and we just scratched the surface.

And if you’re interested in our other coverage of the Congress, we have quite a collection going already.