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

Here Comes Santa Claws

Liberty Games in the UK was looking for a fun way to support charity for the holidays, and we think they succeeded. They decided to set up an arcade crane machine to run over the internet, with each type of toy snagged earning  a donation. Snag a bear, and they will donate £5 to St Mungos, a UK charity that works with homeless or at risk people. Snag one of the rarer Santa toys, and they will donate £20. It’s a great cause, and a nice hack. Behind the scenes, the Internet side of things runs on a Raspberry Pi connected to a PiRack and a couple of PiFace digital interface cards that are wired into the electronics of the crane machine so they could control the buttons on the machine from a Web interface. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem to be running when we tried it, but hopefully someone will give the machine a swift kick shortly to get it going until the Hackaday traffic invariably brings it down again.

One of the interesting thing that they discovered while working on these hacks: they have a pay-out ratio that is determined by the strength of the grabbing arm. The owner can tweak this so that the arm does not grab very firmly, which means a dropped bear. Want to torture your friends with hopes of snagging the best stuffed animals?. Follow the example of this claw machine build all from parts on hand.

The Crane Game, Oculus Style

crane We’re pretty sure the Hackaday demographic is a a person who sees a giant tower crane lifting beams and girders above a skyline and says, “that would be fun, at least until I have to go to the bathroom.” Realizing the people who own these cranes probably won’t let any regular joe off the street into the cabin, [Thomas] and [screen Name] (see, this is why we have brackets, kids) built their own miniature version with an Oculus Rift.

Instead of a crane that is hundreds of feet tall, the guys are using a much smaller version, just over a meter tall, that is remotely controlled through a computer via a serial connection. Just below the small plastic cab is a board with two wide-angle webcams. The video from these cameras are sent to the Oculus so the operator can see the boom swinging around, and the winch unwinding to pick up small objects.

The guys have also added a little bit of OpenCV to add color based object detection. This is somewhat useful, but there’s also an approximation of the distance to an object, something that would be very useful if you don’t have a three-inch tall spotter on the ground.

Video below.

Continue reading “The Crane Game, Oculus Style”

Hoisting a laser cutter to the 3rd floor (and other fun you’ll probably never have)

The folks at Null Space Labs bought a 40W CO2 laser tube in order to build their own laser cutter. Unfortunately nobody really wants to build a laser cutter; they just want to play with a laser cutter. So they ended up biting the bullet and ordering a $4000 model from China. That’s it hovering in midair. This is the story of acquiring the unit and playing around with it once it arrived.

Check out those orange cones in the picture. Hackerspace members put them out to keep the parking spots clear so no damage was caused in the event of an accident. But since they’re located in Los Angeles some of the road warriors didn’t really care and just moved the cones anyway. Luckily the crane hoist to the third floor (they removed one of the windows) ended up going rather well.

So what do you do with a laser cutter like this one? Crack it open and make some improvements. The manufacturer says it can’t cut through steel. Well that’s only if you don’t add some O2 to the cutting process. And the stock mirrors… they’ve got to go. Turns out a simple upgrade boosted the power by about 20% (we’re wondering how they measured that). While we’re talking about optics, might as well upgrade the lens as well. You can see where they’re going with this, and [CharlieX] tells us it is just the first in a series of posts he’ll be working on.

3 camera booms for your Wednesday afternoon

[Andrew] tipped us off about his Cable Cam built out of some lumber and clothes line. It is small enough to fit into a backpack,  includes a safety line and the camera can pan and tilt. A future version is planned with a small remote motor to move the trolley more effectively.

[Andrew] accidentally linked us to his other Camera Crane, taking the same ‘cheap yet effective’ approach as his Cable Cam. Once again, just some lumber and creative engineering are used to pull this one off.

For those without the ability to weld, check out [Bill Van Loo’s] all wood version of a Camera Crane. Same parallelogram design, without remote video output or central pivot.

Build a camera boom at less than a grand

The folks at The Geek Group built a camera crane for less than $1000. In the video embedded after the break a presenter takes you through the different parts that make up the boom and how it is operated. This feels like something from a Junkyard Wars challenge as most of the parts are scavenged or from an industrial surplus store. Don’t let that sour your opinion, what they’ve ended up with is amazingly functional.

The base of the unit is a rolling tripod used for television cameras from around the 1960’s. The aluminum boom attaches to the base with a few large bearings and features a fine tuning balance system. The camera mount is motorized and can be moved using a joystick or set to scan automatically. It’s nice to see more examples of custom camera mounts. Obviously this isn’t a build for everyone, but as cameras and camera equipment become more readily available it makes high quality video production available for the masses, not just the networks.

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Dance of the… (construction) cranes

Hacking is all about using parts and resources in an unconventional way. If stringing a pair of high-rise cranes with LED Christmas lights and making them move to a piece of classical music isn’t unconventional, then we don’t know what is. For nearly a quarter of every hour last night, 2 crane operators, along with two ‘choreographers’, swung and spun the cranes around in a coordinated fashion. The project was created by [Brandon Vickerd] as part of Nuit Blanche.  Its purpose was to showcase the technology that builds the cities we live in. A live video stream from various viewpoints was projected on site, below the cranes.