Clipper Windpower: Solutions In Search Of Problems

The first modern wind turbines designed for bulk electricity generation came online gradually throughout the 80s and early 90s. By today’s standards these turbines are barely recognizable. They were small, had low power ratings often in the range of tens to hundreds of kilowatts, and had tiny blades that had to rotate extremely quickly.

When comparing one of these tiny machines next to a modern turbine with a power rating of 10 or more megawatts with blades with lengths on the order of a hundred meters, one might wonder if there is anything in common at all. In fact, plenty of turbines across the decades share fundamental similarities including a three-blade design, a fairly simple gearbox, and a single electric generator. While more modern turbines are increasingly using direct-drive systems that eliminate the need for a gearbox and the maintenance associated with them, in the early 2000s an American wind turbine manufacturer named Clipper Windpower went in the opposite direction, manufacturing wind turbines with an elaborate, expensive, and heavy gearbox that supported four generators in each turbine. This ended up sealing the company’s fate only a few years after the turbines were delivered to wind farms.

Some history: the largest terrestrial wind turbines were approaching the neighborhood of 2 megawatts, but some manufacturers were getting to these milestones essentially by slapping on larger blades and generators to existing designs rather than re-designing their turbines from the ground up to host these larger components. This was leading to diminishing returns, as well as an increased amount of mechanical issues in the turbines themselves, and it was only a matter of time before the existing designs wouldn’t support this trend further. Besides increased weight and other mechanical stresses on the structure itself, another major concern was finding (and paying for) cranes with enough capacity to hoist these larger components to ever-increasing heights, especially in the remote locations that wind farms are typically located. And cranes aren’t needed just for construction; they are also used whenever a large component like a generator or blade needs to be repaired or replaced. Continue reading “Clipper Windpower: Solutions In Search Of Problems”

Too Many Pixels

Sometimes simpler is more impressive than complicated, and part of this is certainly due to Arthur C. Clarke’s third law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”. It’s counter-intuitive, though, that a high-tech project would seem any less amazing than a simpler one, but hear me out.

I first noticed this ages ago, when we were ripping out the blue laser diodes from Casio XJ-A130 laser projectors back when this was the only way to get a powerful blue laser diode. Casio had bought up the world’s supply of the 1.5 W Nichias, and was putting 24 of them in each projector, making them worth more dead than alive, if you know what I mean. Anyway, we were putting on a laser show, and the bright blue diode laser was just what we needed.

RGB Laser show
A sweeter setup than mine, but you get the idea. 

Color laser setups take three or more different lasers, combine the beams, and then bounce them off of mirrors attached to galvos. Steer the mirrors around, and you can project vector images. It’s pretty cool tech, and involves some serious fine-tuning, but the irony here is that we were tearing apart a device with 788,736 microscopic DLP mirrors to point the lasers through just two. And yet, a DIY laser show is significantly cooler than just putting up your powerpoint on the office wall.

The same thing goes for 2D plotting machines like the AxiDraw. The astonishing tech behind any old laser printer is mind-numbing. Possibly literally. Why else would we think that art drawn out by a pen in the hands of a stepper-powered robot is cooler than the output of a 1600 DPI unit coming from HP’s stable? I mean, instead of running an hours-long job to put ink on paper with a pen, my Laserjet puts out an image in ten seconds. But it’s just not as much fun.

So here we are, in an age where there’s so darn much magic all around us, in the form of sufficiently advanced technology, that comprehensible devices are actually more impressive. And my guess is that it’s partly because it’s not surprising when a device that’s already magic does something magical. I mean, that’s just what it’s supposed to do. Duh!

But when something beautiful emerges from a pair of mirrors epoxied to shafts on springs turned by copper coils, that’s real magic.

From Car To Device: How Software Is Changing Vehicle Ownership

For much of the last century, the ownership, loving care, and maintenance of an aged and decrepit automobile has been a rite of passage among the mechanically inclined. Sure, the battle against rust and worn-out parts may eventually be lost, but through that bond between hacker and machine are the formative experiences of motoring forged. In middle-age we wouldn’t think of setting off across the continent on a wing and a prayer in a decades-old vehicle, but somehow in our twenties we managed it. The Drive have a piece that explores how technological shifts in motor vehicle design  are changing our relationship with cars such that what we’ve just described may become a thing of the past. Titled “The Era of ‘the Car You Own Forever’ Is Coming to an End“, it’s well worth a read.

At the crux of their argument is that carmakers are moving from a model in which they produce motor vehicles that are simply machines, into one where the vehicles are more like receptacles for their software. In much the same way as a smartphone is obsolete not necessarily through its hardware becoming useless but through its software becoming unmaintained, so will the cars of the future. Behind this is a commercial shift as the manufacturers chase profits and shareholder valuations, and a legal change in the relationship between customer and manufacturer that moves from ownership of a machine into being subject to the terms of a software license.

This last should be particularly concerning to all of us, after all if we’re expected to pay tens of thousands of dollars for a car it’s not unreasonable to expect that it will continue to serve us at our convenience rather than at that of its manufacturer.

If you’re a long-time Hackaday reader, you may remember that we’ve touched on this topic before.

Header image: Carolyn Williams, CC BY 2.0.

Less Is More — Or How To Replace A $25,000 Bomb Sight For 20 Cents

Depending on who you ask, the Norden bombsight was either the highest of high tech during World War II, or an overhyped failure that provided jobs and money for government contractors. Either way, it was super top secret in its day. It was also expensive. They cost about $25,000 each and the whole program came in at well over a billion dollars. The security was over the top. When not flying, the bombsight was removed from the plane and locked in a vault. There was a pyro device that would self-destruct the unit if it were in danger of being captured. So why did one of the most famous missions of World War II fly with the Norden replaced by 20 cents worth of machined metal? Good question.

You often hear the expression “less is more” and, in this case, it is an accurate idea. I frequently say, though, that “just enough is more.” In this case, though, less was actually just enough. There were three reasons that one famous mission in the Pacific theater didn’t fly the Norden. It all had to do with morale, technology, and secrecy.

Continue reading “Less Is More — Or How To Replace A $25,000 Bomb Sight For 20 Cents”

Electric Vehicles Continue The Same Wasteful Mistakes That Limit Longevity

A while back, I sat in the newish electric car that was the pride and joy of a friend of mine, and had what was at the time an odd experience. Instead of getting in, turning the key, and driving off, the car instead had to boot up.

The feeling was of a piece of software rather than a piece of hardware, and there was a tangible wait before the start button could be pressed. It was a miracle of technology that could travel smoothly and quietly for all but the longest journeys I could possibly throw at it on relative pennies-worth of electricity, but I hated it. As a technologist and car enthusiast, I should be all over these types of motor vehicles. I live for new technology and I lust after its latest incarnations in many fields including automobiles.

I want my next car to have an electric motor, I want it to push the boundaries of what is capable with a battery and I want it to be an automotive tour de force. The switch to electric cars represents an opportunity like no other to deliver a new type of car that doesn’t carry the baggage of what has gone before, but in that car I saw a future in which they were going badly astray.

I don’t want my next vehicle to be a car like my friend’s one, and to understand why that is the case it’s worth going back a few decades to the cars my parents drove back when when jumpers were goalposts, and the home computer was just a gleam in the eye of a few long-haired outsiders in California.

Continue reading “Electric Vehicles Continue The Same Wasteful Mistakes That Limit Longevity”