Exploring an Abandoned Toys “R” Us

If someone asked me to make a list of things I didn’t expect to ever hear again, the question “Do you want to go to a Toys “R” Us?” would be pretty near the top spot. After all of their stores (at least in the United States) closed at the end of June 2018, the House of Geoffrey seemed destined to join Radio Shack as being little more than a memory for those past a certain age. A relic from the days when people had to leave their house to purchase goods.

But much to my surprise, a friend of mine recently invited me to join him on a trip to the now defunct toy store. His wife’s company purchased one of the buildings for its ideal location near a main highway, and before the scrappers came through to clean everything out, he thought I might like a chance to see what was left. Apparently his wife reported there was still “Computers and stuff” still in the building, and as I’m the member of our friend group who gets called in when tangles of wires and sufficiently blinking LEDs are involved, he thought I’d want to check it out. He wasn’t wrong.

Readers may recall that Toys “R” Us, like Radio Shack before it, had a massive liquidation sale in the final months of operations. After the inventory was taken care of, there was an auction where the store’s furnishings and equipment were up for grabs. I was told that this location was no different, and yet a good deal of material remained. In some cases there were no bidders, and in others, the people who won the auction never came back to pick the stuff up.

So on a rainy Sunday evening in September, armed with flashlight, camera, and curiosity, I entered a Toys “R” Us for last time in my life. I found not only a stark example of what the changing times have done to retail in general, but a very surprising look at what get’s left behind when the money runs out and the employees simply give up.

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Before Sending A Probe To The Sun, Make Sure It Can Take The Heat

This past weekend, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe took off for a journey to study our local star. While its mission is well covered by science literate media sources, the equally interesting behind-the-scenes information is a little harder to come by. For that, we have Science News who gave us a look at some of the work that went into testing the probe.

NASA has built and tested space probes before, but none of them were destined to get as close to the sun as Parker will, creating new challenges for testing the probe. The lead engineer for the heat shield, Elizabeth Congdon, was quoted in the article: “Getting things hot on Earth is easier than you would think it is, getting things hot on Earth in vacuum is difficult.” The team used everything from a concentrated solar facility to hacking IMAX movie projector lenses.

The extreme heat also posed indirect problems elsewhere on the probe. A rocket launch is not a gentle affair, any cargo has to tolerate a great deal of shock and vibration. A typical solution for keeping fasteners in place is to glue them down with an epoxy, but they’d melt where Parker is going so something else had to be done. It’s not all high technology and exotic materials, though, as when the goal was to verify that the heat shield was strong enough to withstand up to 20G of acceleration expected during launch, the test team simulated extra weight by stacking paper on top of it.

All that testing should ensure Parker can perform its mission and tell us a lot of interesting things about our sun. And if you got in on the publicity campaign earlier this year, your name is along for the ride.

Not enough space probe action for the day? We’ve also recently featured how creative hacking gave the exoplanet hunter Kepler a second lease on life.

Get Your Name on the Hottest List in the Solar System

How often does NASA name a spacecraft after a living person? How often do you get to launch your name into a star? How often does NASA send probes to explore the sun? If your answer to all these questions is NEVER, then you win the honor of adding your name to an SD card bound for the center of our solar system. We’re already on the list with [William Shatner] so we’ll see you there. Submissions for the hot list aboard the Parker Solar Probe close on April 27th, 2018 and it launches in May.

The Parker Solar probe honors living astrophysicist [Eugene Parker] who theorized a great deal about how the sun, and other stars, emit energy. His work has rightly earned him the honor of seeing his name on a sun-bound probe. We even owe the term, “solar wind” to [Parker].

To draw more attention, you can have a few bits aboard this probe dedicated to you or someone you care about by adding your name to their list. Or you can send the name of your greatest enemy into the hottest furnace for millions of miles. Your call.

Even though our sun is the most prominent heavenly body, NASA hasn’t sent a probe to explore it before. They are good about sharing their models and they really know how to write standards for workmanship.

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Gorgeous Engineering Inside Wheels of a Robotic Trail Buddy

Robots are great in general, and [taylor] is currently working on something a bit unusual: a 3D printed explorer robot to autonomously follow outdoor trails, named Rover. Rover is still under development, and [taylor] recently completed the drive system and body designs, all shared via OnShape.

Rover has 3D printed 4.3:1 reduction planetary gearboxes embedded into each wheel, with off the shelf bearings and brushless motors. A Raspberry Pi sits in the driver’s seat, and the goal is to use a version of NVIDA’s TrailNet framework for GPS-free navigation of paths. As a result, [taylor] hopes to end up with a robotic “trail buddy” that can be made with off-the-shelf components and 3D printed parts.

Moving the motors and gearboxes into the wheels themselves makes for a very small main body to the robot, and it’s more than a bit strange to see the wheel spinning opposite to the wheel’s hub. Check out the video showcasing the latest development of the wheels, embedded below.

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Earth Rovers Explore Our Own Planet

While Mars is currently under close scrutiny by NASA and other space agencies, there is still a lot of exploring to do here on Earth. But if you would like to explore a corner of our own planet in the same way NASA that explores Mars, it’s possible to send your own rover to a place and have it send back pictures and data for you, rather than go there yourself. This is what [Norbert Heinz]’s Earth Explorer robots do, and anyone can drive any of the robots to explore whatever locations they happen to be in.

A major goal of the Earth Explorer robot is to be easy to ship. This is a smaller version of the same problem the Mars rovers have: how to get the most into a robot while having as little mass as possible. The weight is kept to under 500g, and the length, width, and height to no more than 90cm combined. This is easy to do with some toy cars modified to carry a Raspberry Pi, a camera, and some radios and sensors. After that, the robots only need an interesting place to go and an Internet connection to communicate with Mission Control.

[Norbert] is currently looking for volunteers to host some of these robots, so if you’re interested head on over to the project page and get started. If you’d just like to drive the robots, though, you can also get your rover fix there as well. It’s an interesting project that will both get people interested in exploring Earth and in robotics all at the same time. And, if you’d like to take the rover concept beyond simple exploration, there are other machines that can take care of the same planet they explore.

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Hey NASA, Do You Want Your Stuff Back?

What would you do if you found hidden away artifacts of aerospace technology from the Apollo era?

You call NASA.

Two hulking computers — likely necessitating the use of a crane to move them — and hundreds of tape reels were discovered in the basement of a former IBM engineer by their heir and a scrap dealer cleaning out the deceased’s home. Labels are scarce, and those that are marked are mostly from the late 1960s through the mid 1970s, including data from the Pioneer 8 to 11 missions, as well as the Helios missions.

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Electronics That Can Handle The Pressure

Deep-sea exploration is considered as a relatively new area of research and the electronics involved has to be special in order to survive some of the deepest parts of the ocean. Pressure Tolerant Electronics is a new subject and has its own challenges as explained by [Nic Bingham] of the Schmidt Ocean Institute.

[Nic Bingham] was one of the speakers at the Supplyframe office for ‘The Hardware Developers Didactic Galactic’ held April 20th 2017. His talks was based on his experience with ambient-pressure electronics and autonomous solar-diesel power plants at the Antarctic plateau. Due to high pressures at large depths, the selection of components becomes critical. Low density components such as electrolytic capacitors have either air or fluids which are susceptible to compression under water and prone to damage. Since pressure tolerance is not part of most datasheet figures, component selection becomes difficult and subject to prior testing.

There are other challenges as well as [Nic Bingham] explains that revolve around the procurement of special parts as well as spare for older components. In his whitepaper, [Nic Bingham] chalks out everything from the development process to different testing methodologies and even component selection for such applications.

A video of his talk is worth a watch along with the nice writeup by [Chris Gammell] on his first hand experience of the lecture. For those who are looking for something on a budget, the underwater glider project is a good start. Continue reading “Electronics That Can Handle The Pressure”