Maybe Your Next Robot Should Be a Cyclocrane

At my university, we were all forced to take a class called Engineering 101. Weirdly, we could take it at any point in our careers at the school. So I put it off for more interesting classes until I was forced to take it in one of my final years. It was a mess of a class and never quite seemed to build up to a theme or a message. However, every third class or so they’d dredge up a veritable fossil from their ranks of graduates. These greybeards would sit at the front of the class and tell us about incredible things. It was worth the other two days of nondescript rambling by whichever engineering professor drew the short straw for one of their TAs.

The patent drawing.
The patent drawing.

One greybeard in particular had a long career in America’s unending string of, “Build cool stuff to help us make bad guys more deader,” projects. He worked on stealth boats, airplanes with wings that flex, and all sorts of incredibly cool stuff. I forgot about the details of those, but the one that stuck with me was the Cyclocrane. It had a ton of issues, and as the final verdict from a DARPA higher-up with a military rank was that it, “looked dumb as shit” (or so the greybeard informed us).

A Cyclo-What?

The Cyclocrane was a hybrid airship. Part aerodynamic and part aerostatic, or more simply put, a big balloon with an airplane glued on.  Airships are great because they have a constant static lift, in nearly all cases this is buoyancy from a gas that is lighter than air. The ship doesn’t “weigh” anything, so the only energy that needs to be expended is the energy needed to move it through the air to wherever it needs to go. Airplanes are also great, but need to spend fuel to lift themselves off the ground as well as point in the right direction. Helicopters are cool because they make so much noise that the earth can’t stand to be near them, providing lift. Now, there’s a huge list of pros and cons for each and there’s certainly a reason we use airplanes and not dirigibles for most tasks. The Cyclocrane was designed to fit an interesting use case somewhere in the middle.

In the logging industry they often use helicopters to lift machinery in and out of remote areas. However, lifting two tons with a helicopter is not the most efficient way to go about it. Airplanes are way more efficient but there’s an obvious problem with that. They only reach their peak efficiency at the speed and direction for which their various aerodynamic surfaces have been tuned. Also worth noting that they’re fairly bad at hovering. It’s really hard to lift a basket of chainsaws out of the woods safely when the vehicle doing it is moving at 120mph.

The cyclocrane wanted all the efficiency of a dirigible with the maneuverability of a helicopter. It wanted to be able to use the effective lifting design of an airplane wing too. It wanted to have and eat three cakes. It nearly did.

A Spinning Balloon with Wings

Four wings stick out of a rotating balloon. The balloon provides half of the aerostatic lift needed to hold the plane and the cargo up in the air. The weight is tied to the static ends of the balloon and hang via cables below the construction. The clever part is the four equidistant wings sticking out at right angles from the center of the ship. At the tip of each wing is a construction made up of a propellor and a second wing. Using this array of aerofoils and engines it was possible for the cyclocrane to spin its core at 13 revolutions per minute. This produced an airspeed of 60 mph for the wings. Which resulted in a ton of lift when the wings were angled back and forth in a cyclical pattern. All the while, the ship remaining perfectly stationary.

There’s a really great description of its operation in the article this photo came from.


It really didn't like strong winds.
It really didn’t like strong winds.

Now the ship had lots of problems. It was too heavy. It needed bigger engines. It was slow. It looked goofy. It didn’t like strong winds. The biggest problem was a lack of funding. It’s possible that the cyclocrane could have changed a few industries if its designers had been able to keep testing it. In the end it had a mere seven hours of flying time logged with its only commercial contract before the money was gone.

However! There may be some opportunity for hackers here. If you want to make the quadcopter nerds feel a slight sting of jealousy, a cyclocrane is the project for you. A heavy lift robot that’s potentially more efficient than a balloon with fans on it is pretty neat. T2here’s a bit of reverse engineering to be done before a true performance statement can be made. If nothing else. It’s just a cool piece of aerospace history that reminds us of the comforting fact that we haven’t even come close to inventing it all yet.

If you’d like to learn more there’s a ton of information and pictures on one of the engineer’s website. Naturally wikipedia has a bit to say. There’s also decent documentary on youtube, viewable below.

Photo Credits: Rob Crimmins and Hal Denison

Contender For World’s Most Unsettling Drone?

We’re not sure what FESTO is advertising with their odd flying beach ball. Amongst inspirational music it gently places its translucent appendage over a water bottle and then engulfs it with an unsettling plastic sound. With a high pitched whine it hovers away with its prey and deposits it in the hand of a thirsty business man, perhaps as a misguided nurturing instinct.

Despite discovering a new uncanny valley, the robot is pretty cool. It appears to a be a hybrid airship/helicopter on a small-scale. The balloon either zeros out the weight of the robot or provides slightly more lift. It’s up to the propellers to provide the rest.

We like the carbon fiber truss around the drone. It’s a really slick build with barely an untamed wire. This seems like a much safer design than a quadcopter for indoor flying. If its end effector wasn’t so creepy it would be even cooler. Video after the break.

Continue reading “Contender For World’s Most Unsettling Drone?”

You Need a Self-Righting Thrust-Vector Balloon Copter

Cornell University’s microcontroller class looks like a tremendous amount of fun. Not only do the students learn the nitty-gritty details of microcontroller programming, but the course culminates in a cool project. [Brian Ritchken] and [Jim Liu] made a thrust-vector controlled balloon blimp. They call this working?!?!

Three balloons provide just enough lift so that the blimp can climb or descend on motor power. Since the machine is symmetric, there’s no intrinsic idea of “forward” or “backward”. Instead, a ring of eight LEDs around the edge let you know which way the blimp thinks it’s pointing. Two controls on the remote rotate the pointing direction clockwise and counter-clockwise. The blimp does the math to figure out which motors to run faster or slower when you tell it to go forward or back.

The platform is stabilized by a feedback loop with an accelerometer on board, and seems capable of handling a fairly asymmetric weight distribution, as evidenced by their ballast dangling off the side — a climbing bag filled with ketchup packets that presumably weren’t just lifted from the dining halls.

It looks like [Brian] and [Jim] had a ton of fun building and flying this contraption. We’d love to see a distance-to-the-floor sensor added so that they could command it to hover at a given height, but that adds an extra level of complexity. They got this done in time and under budget, so kudos to them both. And in a world full of over-qualified quadcopters, it’s nice to see the humble blimp getting its time in the sun.

Yep, you heard right… this is yet another final project for a University course. Yesterday we saw a spinning POV globe, and the day before a voice-activated eye test. We want to see your final project too so please send in a link!

Hackaday Links: March 16, 2014


Tape decks are fertile hacking ground. In this offering from [Erich] the speed of the motor has been turned into a MIDI instrument. Drive it faster and the pitch rises, slower and it falls. There are all kinds of other magnetic tape hacks around here, this tape delay is a classic.

[Dbever] needed a reason to use a big 7-segment display module. He opened up the drill press at his Hackerspace, Pumping Station One, and added a sensor which shows the RPM of the drill on the display. Hackaday was lucky enough to be invited for a tour of the space last fall.

There’s a lot of hype about 3D printing… and rightly so since it’s the radest; which is even better than being “the most rad”. But if you don’t have access to one that shouldn’t stop you. Here’s an example of making robot parts using polymorph instead of 3D printing (or laser cutting) them.

If you’re living in the east-coast metroplex and are unable to travel to Maker Faire Bay Area this Spring you can still get in on some live hacking. Check out MassHack which takes place the same May weekend but in Boston instead of San Fran.

Blimps; not as cool as quadcopters but orders of magnitude less likely to go down in flames (as it were). Draw some inspiration for your own build from silent_runner. The graceful travel of these lighter-than-air-craft make for an interesting camera platform. Here’s a POV video inside of a church, and some shots from the ground while in the woods. [Thanks Oliver]

We try not to pimp crowd-funding campaigns just for the sake of getting them to the goal. But we hope you’ll agree that the Gamebuino we saw a few months back makes a strong argument for backers. Their Indiegogo for the Arduino-compatible handheld gaming rig is over half-way there after just a couple of days.

An Arduino hydrogen blimp… oh the humanity!


This sort of flying contraption seems more suited for indoor use. Well, except for the fire hazard presented by building an Android controlled hydrogen blimp. The problems we often see with quadcopters come into play when a motor wire comes loose and the thing goes flying off in a random direction. Loosing a motor on this airship will be no big deal by comparison.

Because the build relies on the buoyancy of the gas, light-weight components are the name of the game. The frame of the chassis is built from balsa wood. It supports two tiny DC motors which are almost indistinguishable in the image above. An Arduino nano and wireless receiver monitor commands from the transmitter and drive the propellers accordingly.

You may have noticed that we categorized this one as a chemistry hack. That’s because [Btimar] generated the hydrogen himself. He used an Erlenmeyer flask with a spout for the chemical reaction. After placing several heat sinks and other scraps of solid aluminum in the flask he poured on the lye solution. This generates the H2 but you need to keep things cool using ice to keep the reaction from getting out of control. We’re going to stick with helium filled blimps for the time being!

See this beast flying around [Btimar’s] living room in the clip after the break.

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R/C blimp uses a party balloon for lift

Here’s a really tiny r/c blimp that doesn’t need several cubic feet of Helium to get off the ground.

Instructables user [masynmachien] has been building r/c blimps for over a decade now, and this latest build is meant to have the same specs as this nanoblimp. The build is based on an 11-inch party balloon that can provide about 11 grams of lift. This doesn’t allow for much leeway in terms of weight, so [masymachien] used hacked-up servos for the motors.

The blimp is an exercise in saving weight – just about every component that can be removed from the build is thrown away. The results are pretty impressive. The entire blimp weighs about 10 grams on the ground. [masynmachien] also tried a 14-inch balloon with an 808 key fob camera with very good results.

The blimp looks pretty good when flying around a room. [masymachien] seems to have a lot of control from a minimal component count. You can check out the party blimp in action after the break.

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For the Trade Show Booth That Has Everything, a Blimp!

Trade shows are all about attracting attention and getting people to learn about your product, so what could be better than a custom-built RC blimp? Sure, you could just buy one, but what’s the fun in that? After several design iterations, [Tretton37] came up with a blimp known as the [LeetZeppelin] controlled by an Arduino, an XBee module, as well as a Wiimote controller connected to a computer.

The hack itself is a great example of repurposing off-the-shelf materials into something more interesting and unique. In addition to the components listed above, hobby servos were modded to allow for thrust motor control in conjunction with Legos for the gearing and “pillow-block bearings.” A list of the “important” parts used in this hack is furnished on their site as well as a video of it in action, which is also after the break.

As for the results of this hack as a trade-show attention grabber, Fredrik Leijon had this to say: “We think that all the gazing at the sky and half opened mouths proves that it was a huge success!”