Archive for the 'mikuvan' Category


The Chronicles of Vantruck 2: Not-Yet-Electric Boogaloo

Jan 12, 2017 in mikuvan, vantruck


It’s a new year, and somehow I’m outside, in the middle of winter in Massachusetts, at night, fixing a van.


As I’ve said before, imagine if I ever exert this much effort doing something socially beneficial or self-improving.

I’ve been sparse lately, though, due to a similar kind of exertion that is called “working for yourself”. When you’re me and you take contracting work, you begin to adopt everyone else’s malformed, premature project embryos as your own, and raise them until they can walk on their own, often into a wall. The upside is that I can pick my battles and choose my projects, but the caveat is that I was never good at time management anyway, so it’s sort of easy for me to get lost in work. Overhaul has been living under a table and Clocker 4 hasn’t been repaired from Franklin Institute yet. Please make #season3 happen ):

I am, however, signed up for Motorama again, and you know what this means:



This time, I will be unstoppable. I will be a worthy opponent!

But first, to get to that point, Vantruck has to be legal to operate in the state of Massachusetts, among other things. So time to get to work!

I have a habit of buying something and then doing research on what it is I just bought. This is why targeted internet advertising never works on me, because it’s too late to show me Ford truck ads now, guys.

To this end, I went ahead and picked up a copy of both the Chilton’s and Haynes service manuals, as well as copy of the Official Ford E/F-150-350 + Bronco Player’s Guide on CD, since I like information. Also, I’ve otherwise never owned a vehicle that had been worth writing an aftermarket service manual over. When one book can cover almost 30 years of one model, or SEVEN MODELS AT ONCE, that’s when you know that 1. it’s good, and 2. it’s why we need globalized diverified economies.

Okay, I’ll take number 1 back. These manuals suck. They’re definitely very “old school car guy” centric, but perhaps it’s just the ones written for old vehicles. The section on how to rebuild your carburetor or adjust the bands in the automatic transmission? Awesome! Checking all engine bearing, cam, and valve clearances? HUGE!



I’ll be up front, the only thing I know about carburetors is that a unicorn lives in each barrel and it decides how much fuel to mix with the incoming air. Vantruck’s Ford 460 engine has a 4-barrel carburetor, meaning it has 4 unicorn-power. At least 1 of those unicorns is slacking off when it gets below about 30 degrees, since it will only hold idle with a little bit of throttle application for a minute or so until it warms up. I am told the unicorn has to be choked to whip it back into shape, and the mechanism that does this might be sticky.

Whatever. I don’t care about carburetors. Maybe one day in the future I’ll write the Haynes manual on how to rebalance your future solar-powered bubblecopter’s main lift motors in excruiciating detail and some young hotshot will tell me that nobody uses electric motors any more and that all new bubblecopters manipulate the electroweak force to spontaneously decompose atoms in front of where you want the propellers to be.

So let’s see what I’m dealing with here…. Remember, the goal is to get turn signals and reversing lights working again!

Alright, so the circuit I’m interested in is protected by Fuse 10. I confirmed that yes, no matter how big a fuse I put in, it immediately blows on any turn of the key, so it’s a hard short to ground somewhere. Referring to the wiring diagrams in the manuals (which all say the same thing in slightly different line widths and wiring label mnemonics), I see that there is a combination switch on the transmission that directly controls the reversing lights.

Given that the hazard flasher still works, and the turn signals do flash with them, I suspected a hard short somewhere along the body harness for the reversing lights. The turn signals are on a different path and therefore not affected by the short, but it will blow the fuse and cause power loss to both.

Interesting fact: No matter how large the nose on a full-size American van, there is still an access port for the engine on the inside, and it’s the same for Chevy/GMC and Dodge too. This thing really has less lateral legroom than Mikuvan does, and it’s because the engine is slightly ahead of you, not slightly behind. You’re still basically sitting on top of it.

Why can’t you be a 1960s Econoline instead? They even made pre-truckified versions!

Here I am popping the doghouse off to inspect the wiring harness going to the transmission switch.


And I find the culprit immediately: A very fried and rotted wiring connector and harness that was touching the engine block. It seems to have been routed in the valley of the engine next to one of the cylinder heads – so I can only surmise that it’s gotten very hot, accelerating the decay of the legendary 80s US-made plastics. This connector shell basically turned to dust when I tried to open it, and the wiring insulation flaked off in large pieces.


Yeah, I picked the scab for a few minutes and separated the wires where they were exposed in order to make sure nothing was shorting,  I cut the harness wrap another few inches in both directions to look for additional shorted locations, but this was the only one.

And here we go – turn signals are back!

However, there were still no reversing lights. I metered the circuits and discovered the transmission switch’s reverse position had failed open – perhaps due to the shorted harness. So that’s a few bucks on eBay for another transmission switch!

Meanwhile, I moved onto excavating other wiring artifacts, playing such games as “Where the hell does this bare-ass connector go?”

I couldn’t find any mating end for this bare terminal; it’s on the same circuit as the power supplied to the transmission switch and is allegedly part of the ignition interlock (for no starting in-gear), but I can find no mention of it anywhere in the manuals – probably an aftermarket mod that was later removed. I taped it off for the time being.

Then we have this rare example of an American Wiring Kudzu:

Someone please tell me this is not OEM. Compared to Mikuvan’s “all in one extravaganza” wiring experience, this is borderline unreal.

I couldn’t identify what the leftmost and uppermost components (with rusty terminals) were, but one of the right hand side relays seemed to be a headlight relay and the other one a horn relay. If you know what those other things are, please let ME know. I just wire-brushed and dielectric-greased the terminals and called it a day.

Following the horn relay caused me to discover a very long-dead airhorn compressor buried near the front radiator supports. Since the plumbing seems to be in place, maybe I’ll try hooking up a new airhorn compressor at some point…

Flash forward a week and the new transmission switch has arrived. This is a photo of removing the old one – it was a very straightforward procedure, and I actually did it “by the book” as recommended.

Interesting fact: The orange tube seen in the first ‘doghouse’ photo is actually a linkage that connects the throttle body to a small lever on the transmission selector valve. Its termination is shown here. Not only is it actually a linkage, but it’s actually the connecting link in a 3-dimenional 4-bar linkage and moves in a circular arc centered somewhere inside the engine. It’s the transmission kickdown linkage, and when you hit the gas pedal hard enough, it moves outwards at the throttle body, translating through that circular motion into a downward motion at the switch here.

It doesn’t stop there; EVERYTHING IS LINKAGES. The throttle itself is a linkage, and the main gear shift selection lever also toggles the leftmost brown bar as a linkage. The parking brake linkage seems to move on the same set of pins this whole clusterfuck moves on, connected to the frame.  AND EVERY ONE OF THESE LINKAGES IS SLOPPY.

I legitimately don’t know if I should be horrified that someone thought this was a good idea, or amazed at the ingenuity that went into packaging everything.

Whatever. You’re all leaving for a sack of electrons in the next few years. I cleaned up the area and regreased all the pins and clevises for now. I should just pack everything with JB-weld so it fills the slop!

As the first wiring repair a few days later, I started with the most critical issue, the transmission harness. Here it is repaired with a few more inches to spare ; this extra length will let me route it up and over the hot part of the engine, over the air cleaner lid, and back down towards the transmission.

Alright, with my turn signals back on and the reversing light circuit showing continuity, I still had no reversing lights. Well, time to go see what other wires could be broken. The wire emerging from the transmission switch which allegedly goes straight backwards to the reversing lamps did not show continuity to ground, meaning it was broken somewhere along the way. First, I checked the light modules themselves, which meant starting at the back…

Bad mistake.

Judging by the aging of the various nylon splice connectors AND A WIRE NUT. WHO THE HELL USES WIRE NUTS HERE I think at least 2 jackasses have been here before me, making me the third ass. Several aftermarket trailer devices have probably lived and died here, and there were not only stubs of wires (some of which I might need) but splices like this rare Shadtree Wiring Octopus living in the back bumper area.

Speaking of trailer accessories, here’s a quick side story.

Since the beginning, Vantruck has had a magic switch installed on the underside of the dashboard. Neither the seller nor I nor my truck-buddy Dan who I blame for this whole thing could tell what it did, or where it led.  This magic switch had a yellow and a brown wire coming off it, with the yellow going directly to 12 volts at the fuse box. The brown wire, though, disappeared into the abyss.

As long as I had the dash and other panels off hunting for the transmission switch wiring, I decided to follow the brown wire.

From the switch, it runs downwards and follows the rest of the body harness out to the front driver’s side of the engine compartment. It’s definitely aftermarket, since it’s just stuffed into the bushing there, not part of any wrapped bundles.

Inside the engine compartment by the front left wheelwell, it makes a U-turn and dives under the frame. It runs allllllll the way back to just ahead of the rear axle, upon which it terminates in….



That was….. anticlimactic.

Oh well. I ripped this wire all the way out, along with the entire magic switch, and some of the wiring stock ended up making it back in the form of taillights.

At this point, I looked up and discovered this creative arrangement of fuel lines and seemingly a vestigial fuel-system switching valve. The seller had made it clear that the dual tank system doesn’t work. There is another switching valve to the right, a few feet closer to the front driver’s side, which is about equally disconnected.

Since it’s silly to have such a huge truck with less range than a Tesla Model S, this fuel system will be the focus of my next adventures. I’m just going to replumb everything from scratch – I don’t even care to detangle this right now. More importantly though, the fuel gauge sensor is faulty in the rear tank (left) and of unknown vintage on the front tank (right), so they are a higher priority than being able to cause 2 forms of global warming at the flick of a switch.


By the way, the yellow end of the magic switch ended in a wire nut by the fuse panel, which has a connection via a 30 amp fuse to….

…a wrapped bundle somewhere in the body harness again.

You know what, fuck it, I quit. I just removed all of the splices, trimmed the unknown broken wires, and put it back together.  Currently, power windows only work if I alligator clip the door harness to 12V, so I’m pretty sure one of these things actually went to them, in defiance of the manual telling me what color wires are supposed to do what. I’ll address this later…

Since I had to get access to the rear wiring anyway for the lights, and it hadn’t gotten that cold out yet, I decided to rust-treat the rear bumper’s inside cavities while it was off.

This thing was unexpectedly heavy. It’s made of mostly 1/8″ and 3/16″ steel with stamped brackets holding it to the frame with 5/8″ bolts.  I keep forgetting that I am working in a realm where everything was designed by and for much larger and manlier men than myself.  This is good – it keeps me on my toes, and makes it even weirder to everyone else around when I pop out of it at Motorama.

The treatment consisted of a wire brushing and air-blasting the rust powder off, then treating the remnant surface rust with converter, and a few layers of clearcoat over it once it dried. Probably overkill for surface rust on the stern of the Titanic, but hey, it’s iceberg season and I had work to do while the substances dried.

Getting it back on again was an even more hilarious adventure. dem gainz

Long story short, I basically rebuilt the rear harness using the shop books as a guide. I removed several ill-conceived marker lights, seen as shadows above the wiring loop. Clown #1 or #2 had just drilled a tiny hole through the sheet metal and shoved the wire through, un-bushed and liable to being torn on any one of those holes. I’ll do my own marker lights later if I feel like adding to the already gargantuan collection of LOOK AT ME I’M A TRUCK lights present.

Finally, after shaving most of the yaks living in this region, I pulled out the taillight modules and began playing hunt the wire. Here is another Shadetree Wiring Octopus habitat. The sheer number of splices on this length alone are mind-boggling, and make me suspect the taillights are not original.  I played a game of alligator clips trying to find out what was supposed to go to where – at this point, none of the colors lined up with the shop book, so I only had intuition to help along.

And an hour or so later, the corrected harness with rebuilt areas and 99% less splices emerges.

Luckily, the other side was actually in good shape, but this was the master side where the brake light, turn signal, and reversing light body harness came in, so it was the side which mattered. Everything was e-taped together, bundled, and shoved back in.

And there we go!

Those are some bright taillights… In fact, they’re the same ones I use on Mikuvan, the so-called 10W LED “buttheadlights”.

I discovered that beyond just hacking up the wiring, Clowns #1 or #2 had in fact installed the entire wrong bulb into the right side reversing light. They somehow stuffed a type 1157 dual-filament bulb into the socket for an 1156. Nothing made contact, and so that light didn’t work initially.

Not having direct replacements for the type 1156, I suddenly remembered I bought like 3 packs of those LED things and decided to just switch over right now to LEDs. I did not have 1157s for the taillights in LED, though, so that will come another day.

These are the “buttheadlights” in question, and I can vouch for their niceness.

Buttoned back up!

The story doesn’t end there, however. As long as there was a gaping hole in the fender, I couldn’t get an inspection sticker to be fully road-legal. At this point, I had plotted and schemed for 3 weeks on how to fix the hole, but the weather no longer permitted any outdoor work that involved curing or drying anything – and I did not have any place left to pull it indoors.  I finally decided to throw it in and took Vantruck to Richie’s Automotive in Waltham, a shop highly recommended by Dan which dealt a lot with trucks. This timed well with a spontaneous New Years trip to Atlanta, so I was able to leave it there and ask for the Have At It treatment.

And here we go! After I returned from driving vans for 3,000 miles, I was totally done with vans, so Dan got the privilege of piloting the battleship back to port. The fender patch is backed with sheet metal and all the damaged brackets were also repaired; I also had them go ahead and replace the exhaust system from the Y-pipe back since it had substantial rust holes in the muffler and other spots.

So that’s why it was so loud. I thought large American V8s just sounded like that all the time.

Finally, they threw in repairing all of the marker and trim lights, including all the little ones in the running boards which were out and I didn’t care enough to do with the other wiring, as well as the ones eviscerated from the fender. It’s great to have a shop well-connected to the industry, since I am definitely not knowledgeable on Giant American Truck things.

The current outlook is to replace the malfunctioning fuel gauge in the rear tank, which reads half when full and empty when about 5 gallons down out of 22, so it’s not helpful at all. I’m perfectly content having only about 250 miles of range on one tank, since that places it on the same refueling interval as Mikuvan. I’m therefore not inclined to actually repair the fuel tank switching valve system, but maybe just join the two tanks at the bottom with a hose or a transfer pump so I have use of both tanks, just not alternately.

After all, if I make it too good, I might be inclined to keep everything running…

In other exciting van news, however, this latest trip to Atlanta did result in Mikuvan rolling the grand ol’ 200K, in the most unromantic possible location: A few hundred feet from the entrance of the Merritt Parkway in Connecticut.

Hopefully I’ll captain this Space Battlevan-ship for many more parsecs to come. I’m eager for the weather to improve again so I can continue preparing it for the inevitable decals.

Baking the Roll Cake, and How I Failed to Save Private Überclocker This Time: The Dragon Con 2016 Adventures

Sep 11, 2016 in Bots, Events, mikuvan, Roll Cake, Überclocker 4

Oh hello everybody! It’s a few days after Dragon Con and I’ve finally woken back up. Where the hell am I?! What is this metallic coating all over my face? Why have I gained 20 delicious pounds?

Here it is, the Post Dragon Con 2016 recap. I didn’t get a change to put out another update before leaving for Atlanta, and then it was a mad pre-convention dash. So this update will cover all of the construction of Roll Cake, as well as get started on the Bot that Charles Forgot – Überclocker 4.0, a.k.a “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Overhaul!”.

Amazingly enough, there were no van shenanigans on the way down. I’m staying in Atlanta a few days later again, so the return trip is still clouded in the ether, but at this time (Boston to Atlanta and now a few hundred miles locally) there are no issues to report.

Alright, I lied a little – at some point a few weeks (months???) ago, the rearmost portion of the exhaust pipe decided to fall off. It had a hanger at the very back of the frame, so did not fall completely off, but just rattled haplessly.

I think it was due to the bend passing over the rear axle being repeatedly struck by said axle when Mikuvan is loaded heavy – such as the trip to Detroit Maker Faire. So anyway, all it manifested in was things being a little louder, but at times due to the exhaust being trapped under the body and in my 3-mile-long wake vorticies, exhaust smell would creep into the cabin. This is not something I wanted to deal with for the long trip down, so I repaired in the best WEEABOO REDNECK way possible:

None of this BEER CAN bullshit… only the best Ramune bottles will be used for MY hoodrat repairs!

This held all the way until South Carolina. When I rolled into town, one of my pre-convention stops was the local Advance Auto Parts to pick up a patch pipe. The whole system is definitely in need of replacement, though. Who wants to hook me up with D U A L   F L O W M A S T E R S?

Anyways, without further ado, here are the sections of this roman noir de robots:

  1. Finishing and testing Roll Cake
  2. Designing and building Überclocker 4
  3. Robot Battles and Dragon Con recap


Icing on the Roll Cake

So this is where we build up to that ‘preview picture’ I posted last time.  One of the first things I did as soon as I put the frame pieces printing on the Mark Two was go and do basically the only machining thing, which was make the drum.

For this, I brought back an old friend. One of my first major tool purchases was this little indexing head, which made its first appearance here in a LOLioKart build report. It became my most prized possession for some time thereafter, but I left it in the shop when I mostly scuttled off to main campus and upstairs into the IDC for graduate school nonsense. With my departure, it began becoming decrepit under usage by random newbies. One of the dividing plates was lost, and one of the tilting locks was also lost after someone cranked the locking bolt too tight and sheared it off.

Every once in a while, someone does find it again and use it, so I knew it was still operational. I gave it a once-over cleanup and adjustment before starting here.

The drum blank was carved out on New MITERlathe before being transferred to the indexing head for feature drilling. I originally specified 6 bolt holes. But as it turns out, 8 holes is easier to use the indexer for, since it didn’t involve going in partial circles using the dividing plates. Just 5 cranks of the handle… So, 8 holes it is.

Next up, putting the big 1/2″-13 threads in for the cap screw “teeth”.

One tricky operation was broaching the 8mm bore for a 2mm keyway. Since Roll Cake is being built from Banebots P80 parts, so it must be compatible with an 8mm keyed shaft. I could not get a 8mm bushing & 2mm broach in time – nor did i want to spent dozens of dollars for the honor. So I did what, I guess, I would do, and carefully hacked at it with a 1/16″ endmill until I got a 2mm slot with a bit of radius at the end.

Precision! Craftsmanship! Finesse! We strive to be the opposite of this at Big Chuck’s Robot Warehouse. Zero sigmas, guaranteed, or I’m keeping your damn money anyway.


The frame parts have finished printing from the new Onyx material!

Well, hold up a little… These are extremely hollow prints that were solely to test for dimensional correctness. Things like “Does the motor fit in this hole?” and similar.

Here is a mock fit with some of the parts. I used a paint marker to pinpoint locations which needed rework – generally increasing slop or tolerances in the CAD model to get a better fit in real life.

Another arrangement of “DO NOT USE THESE FOR REAL” parts, which all had X marked on them so I was not tempted.

The two main frame halves are actually made from regular nylon for the most part, with carbon fiber loops in the center of the bot to strengthen the area. Otherwise, the regular nylon is tough and a bit flexible, which will hopefully help against some impacts.

A little pile of wheels with grommet-tires installed…

I next synthesized these planet gears from spare P80 4:1 and 3:1 planet gears. The 4:1 gears were bored out and cut to half a normal pinion length. Then the 3:1 gears were machined down for half their length, and then promptly shoved into the 4:1 hollow half-gears. The shoving first involved lining one tooth with one valley between teeth on each gear. As mentioned in the design post, these compound gears require the correct phasing of teeth to be assembled succesfully. I was probably off by some fractions of a degree on each gear.


The ring gear itself has also been reprinted in carbon fiber back Onyx (a material we came to call RMCC – Reinforced MarkForged Carbon-Carbon). I made the number of engagement dogs lower to guarantee the servo being able to reach between them.

Assembly for realsies begins with the bolting together of the sides. On each side, three #4-40 cap screws with washers and nuts retain the sides to the center U, and at the very rear, a #4-40 threaded rod with 4 nuts provides last-ditch backup if those front fasteners fail.

The ‘flaps’ are waterjet-cut 6061 aluminum 1/16″ thick sheet, which are bent up at the edges like so:

Well, that’s how it’s supposed to work. I really need to watch some tutorials on how to use a box-and-pan metal brake correctly, because I clearly can’t do so, ever – and it probably doesn’t help that I make sheet metal parts infrequently enough that the shared machinery is never in the same condition twice (or some times working at all), so I have no clue how it’s supposed to behave. Anyways, no two bends on this thing are alike in location and alignment. One side is workable, the other side is very twisted… Oh well, we’ll fix it in post.

Time to solve the never-quite-solved wiring problem. I made access tunnel paths for the hypothetical wiring through the back end of the U-bracket that makes the center of the bot, but physically doing it was another whole issue. “Haphazard” and “ad-hoc” are two words that each don’t quite describe Roll Cake’s wiring on their own.

I basically had to make three long cables, fish them through the two wire tunnels, and then wire everything in-place at the ends and cut them to length. These cables were the main battery, left side drive motor, and firing servo cables. The right side drive motor also passed through the right tunnel, so really it was 4 cables.

For this purpose, I used the thinnest wire I could find for the drive motors, which was some 30 gauge blue wirewrapping wire.

Everything in the bot could run directly off 11.1v – the drive ESCs (VEX controllers), even the Hobbyking TR6Av2 receiver believe it or not – you can run basically every new receiver from battery voltages since they have onboard regulators for the microcontrollers. However, the firing servo still needs 5 volts to not go crazy and burn out.

Therefore, I made a super small in-line 5V regulator from two Chinese’d  LM1117 parts.

Don’t give me no “that’s racist” bullshit – you and I know this happens on a regular basis.

This 5V line then feeds the receiver, and the servo cable is a 3-pin custom cable which comes from that. Essentially as if I were to plug it in without hacking anything.

After the electronics are installed, I made the orange roundbelts and started closing everything up. The round belts are measured using the hypothetical pitch line in the belt circle drawing in the CAD model, then shortened about 10% to accommodate stretching.

The final act is to install the linkages. This is done using long M3 bolts cut down such that their unthreaded shoulder acted as the joint pin, but I could still put a locknut on the end.

Here is the finished bot from the flappy end.

And a photo from the ‘business end’.

So how does this thing work? Well, it doesn’t really.  The serpentine roundbelt drive has too much friction for the Fingertech motors to overcome. While Stance Stance Revolution used two 22:1 Fingertech motors, they were direct driving small wheels. Each pulley adds some friction, since the belts need to be tight to transmit torque and the pulleys do not have rolling bearings, just nylon on shoulder screws. Roll Cake therefore could not move at all. I’ve built some pretty damn immobile bots, but this is literally the most immobile thing I’ve ever made!

You can hear the motors strain to move, slipping on the belt, and occasionally it scoots forward a fraction of an inch. That’s about it. In doing this, I actually burned out one of my 22:1 motors.

I began making arrangements to get some 33:1 motors from fellow competitors down in Atlanta, which should help the torque problem, and also began the search for small timing belts. MXL and 2mm timing belts come in 1/8″ wide / 3mm wide, so I could redesign the pulleys to that tooth profile. Then, the matter becomes if the Mark Two can hold the kind of tolerances needed for the tooth geometry to work out. I decided to leave that to Atlanta.

While the driving test was a bust, I did get a few flipper tests in with the drum going full speed. I’m glad to say that this part seems to work great. The servo engagement is clean and predictable. Here’s a test against a roughly 3.5 pound empty toolbox. Note that I don’t have anything springy or elastic that’s preferentially loading the linkage closed, so it depends on good firing servo timing to bring it back down.

That was actually the second test. The first test was against a heavier (4.5 pound) aluminum rail – coincidentally, the unmachined blank frame rail for Uberclocker 4. On this test, the deceleration of the drum was severe enough that the bot rotated forward against the linkage… causing the drum to strike the ground and hilarity to ensue.

Well, truth be told, that was the part of the bot I cared about. I packed all of the parts up for Roll Cake anticipating needing to do some re-engineering once I was on site. Just prior to leaving, I ordered two sizes of timing belts from SDP-SI based on the existing pitch length and what was closest to it – two 155 tooth 1/8″ wide MXL belts, and two 160 tooth ones. At least one of these will be close enough after I redesign the pulleys to be timing belt profiles with roughly the same pitch circle.


Überclocker 4.0

No fake-outs with wheels this time! This is the real deal now.

I’d been MEANING to retire Clocker version 3 (Überclocker Advance) since after Motorama 2015. Then came Dragon Con 2015…and then Franklin Institute 2015. After it won handily at FI, I decided to force myself to retire it, leaving the broken actuator unrepaired. Clocker 4.0, which has no witty Engrish name, was meant to be designed much earlier in the summer, post #season2.

Well that clearly didn’t happen… I actually started working on the design on and off in mid-July, but some contract work was keeping me entertained at the time – so designing didn’t start in earnest until August. That’s one side of being “funemployed” is that the work you do pick up is often stuff you like to do, meaning you adopt it as your own, meaning certain death if you have zero time management ability like me.

The first thing I designed up was actually the custom cast wheels that I talked about last time. I decided to use Clocker 4 as a smaller-scale experiment to try out the technique and different materials without wasting a bunch of money. The wheels were made with a 3/4 hex hub, which Clocker 3 uses and which I intend to carry over to the new bot. They were made in two sizes – 3 inch and 2 inch – to reflect the needs of the new bot.

So let’s go through the design of the bot now! Keep in mind through all of this that the principal design constraint was “Is this dimension about 50% of what it would be on Overhaul 2?” and is definitely a departure from my usual tactic of letting the part placement drive the robot. In fact, you could argue that both Roll Cake and Clocker 4 represent me trying to “design to look like something first” – Roll Cake being an old robot vision from years ago, and Clocker 4 being a scale model of Overhaul.

Just like with Overhaul 2, I began with a sanity check sketch to make sure the dimensions aren’t impossible. In this picture, the only things fixed are the wheel sizes and chassis height. Much like OH2′s design phase, I was going to let the length of the frame be malleable in order to fit components. But it should end up somewhere around 30″ in the ideal case.

I focused a little more on the pontoons first. The rectangles shown are a size of wubbie that is the closest to 50% scaled down from the type used in OH2.   While their final shape and dimensions is not settled by this sketch, I just wanted to factor them in to get an idea of the size boundaries.

Bringing in more geometry into the mix now by playing with lifting fork lengths and the height of the arm towers.

Probably the terminal stage of The One Sketch has the 2.5″ square DeWut motor profiles imported, the length of the frame adjusted, and the first pass at the upper clamp arm also drawn. Most dimensions line up with OH2 within 10% or so, which is fine. Nothing truly scales directly in robotworld, and I figure so long as the visual is complete, nobody else but me will notice!

The beginnings of the 3D design went much the same way as with most of my bots,  Overhaul included, with the generation of frame rails. You have to start somewhere, so I usually start with the back or left side, and everything sort of grows off that.

I imported the One Sketch and aligned it with the bot as a reference.

Moving on ahead a little bit, here is a more complete drive side. The front wheel is inset significantly into the plane of the front endcaps which hold the rubber shock mounts. I wanted to do this to maximize the wheelbase. Previous Clockers have had the “reactive outriggers” up front to maintain front traction when an opponent gets picked up. This version is relying solely on the rubber shock mounts deflecting, and it will be riding on the front edge of the pontoons thereafter. To maximize the chances of retaining traction in that scenario, I wanted to push the front wheels as far forward as I could.

This does open up a gap in the otherwise fully constrained tab of the frame rail, so here’s hoping that spamming the region with cap screws will make up for it.

Frame rail service for Clocker will also be a little harder harder than Overhaul. In this design, to pull the left frame rail, the pontoons and three of the six shock mounts have to be removed, and there is now more than 1 bit driver size needed. However, you could argue that OH2 also needed two bit sizes – 7/32 for the pontoon screws and 5/16 for the frame bolts.

Cloning stuff to the other side…

A very difficult step came afterwards. I now had to fit the DeWuts from Clocker 3 into this frame (I SOLEMNLY PROMISE DEWUTS WILL BE BACK IN STOCK SOON) . This presented a very serious problem, which is well summarized by NO.

You see, the average Featherweight, full-contact 30lber is generally much smaller than the Sportsman class bots, since they’re built denser with thicker materials to take KE weapon impacts. Clocker 3 is very large for a 30lb bot to begin with, at 20″ wide and 27″ long end to end, it’s almost the footprint of some of the denser 250lbers like Poison Arrow.

In order to make weight, as well as stay roughly true to Overhaul’s dimensions, Clocker 4 needs to be around 16″ wide. However, this utterly precludes the use of the DeWuts. I would need to make the bot at least 18″ wide to use them. That means proportionally more weight to cover the additional width of the bot, as well as a lot of inside space that’s kind of wasted lengthwise since more components would be able to fit next to the motors. This isn’t a bad thing by itself, but two DeWuts back to back kind of forces a different shape robot than what I was pursuing.

So I began working on the inevitable: going brushless with the drivetrain to save volume. I studied a few options which all revolved around a handful of AXi motors I picked up a few months ago (get yours today!). I borrowed a BaneBots P60 model since Jamison had already played with mounting P60s to the AXi motors. I also investigated stuffing the AXi motors into my spare P80s from Overhaul.

In the name of expediency – namely, that I had the spare P80 drive motors on hand, the AXi + P80 combination won. The 4:1 Overhaul P80s combined with the AXi motors at 7S (26v) ought to give a top speed of about 17mph, which is plenty.

The downside is extra weight. While the P80 and AXi combo weighs less than the DeWut, it weighs more than the P60 equivalent which would handle the motor power just fine. For Robot Battles where I won’t need extensive armor, I figured that letting the drive motors have 2 more pounds is fine.

However, I might actually swap these out before FI 2016 for modified P60s, since having the armor weight back would be nice.

Now importing more components – the space inside the bot is filling up fast!

I devised this quickly-3D-printable-from-Onyx mounting bracket for the AXi motor. A new pinion with a 6mm bore will be crafted out of spare 4:1 planet gears, which have 4mm bores I can hollow out.

So the AXi drive will solve the issue of width in the bot. I’m now toying with placement of the internal components. To start with, I’ll be using two of the spare DLUX 160A controllers I took out of Overhaul before the Season 2 tournament began, with a possible upgrade to Brushless Rage later using a 6-FET board (think Brushless HalfRage)

I settled for the two DLUX controllers up front mounted to a (not yet modeled) non-structural interior bulkhead, and the RageBridge in the rear corner to handle lift and clamp, also with a yet-unmodeled bracket.

Let’s begin on the fork tines now. I traced out the basic shape of Overhaul’s fork, but unlike Overhaul which uses a dead (fixed) lift shaft, I’m keeping the live life shaft of Clocker 3 since it’s fairly easy to attach to. The force transmission will be using clamp shaft collars made into hubs. There won’t be a central tube structure in the fork – both will just be held together with standoffs. The forks should, like in Overhaul, never be taking direct impacts unless I messed up horribly.

After I imported the quick fork model, which is still missing specific details like standoff mounting, I also began playing with the clamp actuator. I imported a few older Clocker actuators to check size and placement.

For this edition, I really wanted to move back to a full 550 motor actuator. This should actually give the bot a clamping force of several hundred pounds, which I wanted to have since most Featherweight class bots have negligible top armor.

The issue wasn’t so much weight (it would weigh around 1 cheap drill motor) as space. It had to fit in between the side plates of the clamp arm, first of all, and then anchor itself in a useful location that won’t impede the fork travel much. Overhaul has some issues with this which I would like to remedy for #season3 – so in a way, this is once again using the small bot to pilot something for the big one.

More details have been modeled into the fork plates now. The cross holes will have standoffs like good ol’ Clocker, not just to hold the fork sides together, but keep them level between arms. Overhaul has no such crossing feature near the tip of the arms, only the base. This was the cause of the forks becoming cockeyed during the Beta match when it got a good boop in on one of them, and I’d definitely like to solve this problem.

I decided to pursue the full 550 motor actuator at all costs, so I made one similar in construction to Clocker 3′s final actuator. The motor and gearbox? Just a 12 O’Clocker spare motor! The gears will be purchased from Vex, then modified – one to a 12mm bore, the other bored out to shove an Acme nut into.

Not shown in the above image is an “anti-buckle” MarkTwo printed piece that bridges the two thin plates and cradles the leadscrew for more of its travel. The actuator sides are in tension when clamping, but will be subject to sudden compression shock if the bot lands upside-down or I try reversing out of a grab, so I didn’t want to count on JUST 1/8″ aluminum plates.

Here it is loaded in place and showing placement. The upper anchor point was open to negotiation because the clamp arm sides hadn’t been designed yet. The lower anchor point for the leadscrew will just be a pin that is shoved through the first hole in the fork side plates, closest to the pivot point. The neat thing is this is somewhat adjustable for leverage ratios if I choose to use another hole instead.

I generated the fork side plates based on the dimensions of the One Sketch. It, too, will be held together by a bunch of standoffs – no welding here. This drawing shows some possible standoff positions. I was going to alternate inside and outside circles as I moved from left to right, like so:

The standoffs used are just some big McMaster-Carr 5/8″ hex aluminum standoffs, which for some reason are almost half the price of the neighboring sizes.

Actuator placement was a compromise between “How far does the motor stick out the top?” vs. “How far does the motor stick into the grabbing region?” since I could make the leadscrew as long or short as I pleased.

About this time, I threw Clocker 3 into the CAD model. The size different is almost comical, and at this point I wondered if Clocker 4 could pick up anything at all without falling on its face. Definitely will have trouble with the average 30SC sized bot, but again, 30lb Featherweights are smaller in general.

Anyways, moving on.

One of the next mods I want to make to Overhaul is what I call the “Anti-Cobalt System” – in other words, putting something between the frame rails so this doesn’t happen again. For Overhaul, I’ve been mentally designing it as a top and bottom plate fastened together in the middle, to close off the box and transfer sideway forces more rearward in the bot.

Since Clocker will now be competing in a high-energy class, I decided to implement the ACS for the most part on the bottom of the bot. This also acts to keep the drive chains above the plate, so they’ll be less vulnerable. I could still see this having a failure mode where in a very energetic sideways hit, the frame rails will deform in a parallelogram between the ACS plate on the bottom and the angled endcap on the top.

I’m now in the stage of generating top and bottom plates as well as random spacers. MarkForged spacers for everybody!

The single tooth will be made from some left over 1/2″ AR500 steel – good enough for the task.

I began the process of making the armor pontoons using the same method as on Overhaul. I made a master 2D sketch that represents the front face, and then a series of 3D Sketches thereafter, then defined surfaces using the sketch lines as their bounds.

The geometry for Clocker 4 is a lot simpler. There are no vertical forward-facing or side-facing wubbies, just the six widely spaced ones on the angled face. In a future revision I may consider adding forward-facing ones like Overhaul, if this decision comes back to bite me.

One major difference with these? They ride a lot closer to the ground than Overhaul’s. In fact, I will most definitely have to finish-grind the bottom edge to get enough clearance to not get hung up on them.

This is a good thing, because it resolves the other weakness of Overhaul that was clear during the beta match – the pontoons were simply up too high to be helpful, being designed to take a whomping instead of be good foot-in-the-door implements.

An overhead view of the bot basically done – you can see the standoffs between each pair of fork plates, the tie bar between the forks, and the tube which acts as the anchor for the leadscrew.

I added tabs and slots the same way as on Overhaul to prepare the pontoons for cutting and welding.

Here’s the finished bot minus cat ears!

The ears don’t seem to be necessary on Clocker 4, but it just doesn’t look right, man. I will probably design a pair up to be printed in RMCC which will bolt to the topmost hole in the clamp arm.

I left design of the internal brackets as an exercise to be done in Atlanta, since by this point I was running up on the last week available for fabrication. Hot off the CAD presses and into real life we go!

Man, it’s been a LONG TIME since I’ve done a one-shot epic waterjetting session to pop out a robot. Pictured above is the “Clocker kit”… or some 10 gauge mild steel, 1/4″ 1/2″ and 3/4″ aluminum, and some 1/16″ FR-4 laminate.

Sadly, in my cruftiness, waterjetting is no longer free – this is probably around $400 of machine time.

To prevent the FR-4 from delaminating, I brought back one of my tricks of cutting the outer profile only, and using another material as a template. So here’s how this part went – I routed the parts manually to ensure it does all the interior holes first, then the outer profile.

I laid a piece of plywood in the machine first and had it cut only the holes. Then I clamped the FR-4 on top of the plywood and continued the toolpath to cut only the profile. The 1/2″ plywood pieces then become drilling templates for conventional drilling of the holes later, which otherwise might (WILL) delaminate since they’re piercing close to the edges.

While the design was slow-cooking to completion, I continued casting wheels, making 4 of each total. I’ve basically gotten this process down, so the next step is to try out different materials.

Here, I’m readying the frame rails for countersinking and counterboring. It’s built in the same style as Overhaul, and also many 30lbers and 12lbers. The frame rails will need machining to key into each other slightly too.

One of the last operations I was able to pull off before having to depart for Atlanta was the coring of the large lift gear. This was done using MITERlathe and like 5 different tools. MITERS didn’t have a spoon-type boring bar to make a plunging face cut easy, so I had to make do using a few different types of insert cutters, switching left-hand and right-hand tools to clean out the blind pocket.

Sadly, Monday the 28th of August was upon me. I actually spent more time in the week preceding finishing Roll Cake, since I cared a lot more about perfecting that mechanism, so Clocker 4 fell by the wayside. Clocker traveled to Atlanta in kit form, shown above. I needed to do some (lol) work on it in Atlanta, such as milling the frame slots, before it could be assembled.

And that’s the bot half of the story. Next, what about the convention!? I came this far for something, I think. Whatever is causing all that noise next to the robot events, dammit!

Robot Battles & Dragon Con 2016

So before we get to the convention proper, let me interject with a proud announcement that…

…I finally got pulled over for speeding.

You didn’t think it was physically possible, right?

I’d like to thank my parents, uhh… Boston area highways…. and, of course and Smooth Automotive for the Accidental Engine Rebuild of 2015 which has restored Mikuvan’s former power so much that I legitimately now can speed. I mean, it takes a little while to get there, and no hills please, but otherwise, I can cruise at 75mph all day – just enough to get in trouble in Virginia when the speed limit drops to 60mph for an upcoming work zone and I ABSOLUTELY, POSITIVELY MUST PASS THIS ONE LAST MOTHERFUCKER ON THE RIGHT HERE and… Dammit.

He got me fair and square. In fact, he didn’t even mention how I Boston’d someone immediately before the orange construction barrel forest began. So thank you in that way, Virginia State Trooper. I’m not even going to look at this ticket until I’m back in town now, because Virginia sucks.

Alright, enough of that. As I mentioned at the beginning, there were no van shenanigans to be had. I got into town around 4:30PM Wednesday, and immediately began plotting robot finishing tactics. The first order of business was getting Roll Cake its timing belt setup, which I designed quickly once I settled in and put on print. What?

Yes, I dragged the Mark Two provided by my lovely sponsor MarkForged along. Hey guys, how’s about some hot and humid weather testing?!

The SDP-SI timing belt order arrived on Thursday afternoon, so I could test the fit immediately. More importantly, though, on Thursday…

I busted into Dale‘s shop like the good ol’ days and basically took over his entire workbench. On deck were finishing some milling and turning parts for Clocker 4. I machined the axles, finished off the wheel hubs, and made the motor pinions, among other unfinished business.

The big rear chamfer for the frame rails was also cut by tilting the head of his CNC mill 30 degrees.

Friday bot work was mostly done at the GT Invention Studio. I primarily worked on Roll Cake, doing the final installation and tuning of the timing belt drive:

The pulleys were sized by how close they were to the pitch line defined in my belt loop sketch. The difference was then made up by changing the motor pulley tooth count until the tension was reasonable (just going from 21 tooth to 18 tooth in one try was enough).

This worked….. a little. Roll Cake’s movement was still extremely strained. There was no binding of the drivetrain anywhere I could see, just that there’s too many moving things for the 22:1 Fingertech motors. It moved slowly and quite arduously, and still could not turn.

Well, there wasn’t much else I could do to alleviate this problem except swap to the 33:1 gearmotors which I was able to pick up day-of MicroBattles from Mike Jeffries. Before the event started, I went ahead and did the motor transplant.

Operating sheets and all! This was so I didn’t get any abrasive/metallic grunge into the bot while cutting down the motor shafts.

The end result? I got Roll Cake to move somewhat reliably on the floor, so I went ahead and decided to put it in its first match anyway…. against Kurtis’ Black Adder.

Dammit, Kurtis.

Unfortunately, in the arena, it moved all of 18 inches or so before farting out again. It at least managed to flip Black Adder over with a chance collision. At this point, I stopped caring, since watching the mechanism test fire was more important to me than the rest of the bot, so I just kept flapping until the end.

Poor Roll Cake. It had such a bright future.


Okay, not really.

So the flipper mechanism kept working up until the end, even though I technically never got a direct shot at Black Adder.

That’s okay – I’m already out to rebuild this thing correctly such that it’s mobile. Roll Cake 2 will just have two brushless gimbal motors for drive, as hub motors, with the same Afro30 SimonK-enabled controllers driving them. It will have 2 larger wheels up front like a classic drumbot, not this 6WD business. Since Stance Stance Revolution could basically drive upside-down on its two discs, I’m much more confident in this setup working.

So that’s it for Roll Cake. Now back to your regularly scheduled Überclocker:

In the same work session as finishing out Roll Cake, I assembled all of the modules within Überclocker – the actuator, both drive motors, wheels, and the DeWut for the liftgear.

On Sunday afternoon, I returned to Dale’s shop to make a mess one more time. This time, to carve out the giant pocket that is in the back frame rail, formerly solid 6061 aluminum. Final weight estimates showed that I did need around 1.2 pounds out of the frame rail, so I calculated the pocket size needed, gave it some more oversize for weight tolerances, and went to town.

The next operation in Dale’s shop was putting some pilot holes into the end-tapped frame rails. I figured I could run with 1 bolt in each frame rail for now, and then drill them later once I had access again to a large drill press back at Artisan’s Asylum or MIT.  This let me put most of the frame together on Sunday evening.

After I went back home, I did what I could using the remains of my high school workbench, which contained a small 10″ drill press, hand drill, and jigsaw, plus the hand tools and cordless tools I brought down, and a few kibbles of tooling that I didn’t take up to Boston with me originally.

The above was…. basically all that I could do. Mount the shaft collar to the big lift gear using a counterbore I brought. I didn’t even have any clamps left, and by the time I got back home, all of the hardware stores and home improvement stores were closed for Sunday night. I tried drilling and tapping a few of the frame screws by hand, which was an arduous procedure. I basically called it quits around 6AM Monday after trying to work on putting it together all night, and not getting much further than 10 or so drilled holes.

Basically the most important part of having tools is having consistent tools. Maybe these tools were enough for me during high school, but I also built bots in completely different ways to accommodate them (e.g. making things from UHMW plastic). Designing for tools that are not consistently available, or totally unavailable, will just end in disappointment. I realized no matter what, I could only hack Clocker so far in the remnants of my parents’ garage if it depended on a full service shop to be put together.

So here is the assembled husk of Clocker 4 next Overhaul at Robot Battles on Monday, showing what could have been if I didn’t kick my own ass… or as Will Bales puts it, Will Balesing.

By the way, shoutouts to Matt and Dan of Chaos Corps for taking the pieces of the pontoons from me on Friday and returning them completely welded on Saturday. Not just welded, but all ground and wire brushed. I owe you guys a small water balloon filled with argon!

But wait! The story doesn’t end there!

I also brought 12 O’Clocker along, figuring that I’d be able to run something in the Monday event at least. 12 O’Clocker was working fine after Momocon, so I basically packed it right back up with some spare motors. The clamp motor on it was a little baked, so I reached out to the group for spare Kitbots/1000rpm-style motors.

It actually got a few matches in and entertained the audience immensely.

In the rumble, the lift sprocket got bent hard enough to pop the lift chain off. Otherwise, 12 O’Clocker takes no damage once again! Gosh, maybe I should just scale this thing UP instead of Overhaul DOWN, right?

So no prizes this year, and not a very good Dragon Con for robots. I’m going to continue finishing Clocker 4 in the interest of Franklin Institute Robot Conflict 2016, where I hopefully will get to play with some of the big energy bots. I never had a strategy for Overhaul against vertical weapons like drums and discs (e.g. Hypershock, Witch Doctor) – besides Don’t Get Owned, I mean. I hope the Featherweight class, which is full of vertical spinners, will let me fine tune how to approach bots like that better for #season3.

By the way, there was a trip to the new Atlanta McMaster-Carr warehouse to pick up last-minute hardware. This place is

…kinda big.

Okay, REALLY REALLY BIG. Douglasville and the surrounding west Atlanta area is kind of a new target for development, and besides industrial plazas and The McMastergon, there were plenty of housing developments. What could be better than stumbling out of bed and over to Will-Call to pick up your last night’s blurrily-assembled orders? Or hell, just wheel the robot over and work on it in the Will Call parking lot. It’s like working on your shitty car in an Advance Auto Parts parking lot! Who the hell’s ever done that… not me! Nope, never.

So wait… wasn’t there an ENTIRE CONVENTION going on besides just me working on robots? Absolutely… so let’s see how that went.

As usual, I’m too lazy to put together a worthwhile costume, so I went lazily all days as “me”. Just the Overhaul team shirt, and also wearing the Axent Wear headphones around.

I got stopped way more times than I expected.

Shown above is the crew of Jamison, Cynthia, Hannalin, and Lucy, formerly all of JACD last season. This year’s group is Overwatch. Overwatch is a video game. I haven’t played a video game with any degree of seriousness since Descent II Vertigo. I assume this is all legit. Wait until you see the construction Cynthia put into the giant bow…

There was a massive Overwatch photo gathering which took us an hour or more to get out of. Pictured above in the group are Pizoobie and Bonnie.

I generally haunt costumes which have had a lot of work put into them, especially very large and unwieldy ones. I swear at some point I will make an overly complex and elaborate costume. You could argue that Overhaul is in fact such a prop.

This was cool, too. These guys were cruisingly slowly around the convention. P I P E S

Okay, I don’t even know what’s going on any more. Overwatch players, I assume this is something you’d understand.

Alright, I usually don’t give a spare minute for Kantai Collection because it’s utterly destroyed my favorite genre. But I will make exceptions for well done ones. Behold, the U.S.S. Iowa.  I watched her being “assembled” on the spot, and before that, I followed the ant trail of battleship parts being carried high overhead down the packed street by her pit crew. Her drydock workers?

Good ol’ Kancolle, ruining “girls & machinery” since 2013.

If you know who this U.S.S Iowa is, let me know and I will gladly add links and creedits.

Now here’s how to properly do it. Besides Overwatch, Cynthia, Lucy and Hanna also teamed up for something else. Shamelessly stolen from the BattleBots Instagram, it’s….

BattleBots cosplay at @dragoncon with Lucy, Hanna and Cynthia. Zachary Ernst

A photo posted by BattleBots (@battlebots) on

I’m telling you all, #season3 will be one big weeb convention. Everything is falling into place, exactly according to keikaku. Cynthia is the designer of Haru-Chan, so it was only natural that she also sketched up plans for Sawblaze and Road Rash.

Now for the event recap!

MicroBattles this year was bigger than ever. With the insect classes (1s and 3s) being the easiest and cheapest to start in, the newbie and first timer proportion this year was immense. We ended up getting over 40 robots!

Sadly I actually missed a lot of the action getting Roll Cake prepared, but here are some of my favorites.

Here we have the wild Killer Colsonbot, which is believed to have evolved from escaped Domestic Colsonbots.

That’s Pvt. Slicer, or what happens when Mike gets ahold of the Colsonbot CAD. The cage is made of layers of waterjet-cut 4130 steel carefully welded together. It had friction drive reliability issues, but it somehow won 2 matches as round pushybot. When the cage met a vertical spinner, it died.

Representing the “meh” department of Dale’s Homemade Robots, this is Noodles, a 4wd pushybot. Besides all brushless drive, steering gyro, and a crafty urethane-sheet-mounted steel plow, it has pool noodle wheels which caused a bit of controversy because in the final a piece of them came off and jammed Black Adder’s drum.

Now, unintentional entanglement is allowed in the rules for the precise reason of a part inadvertantly coming off and getting stuck in something (as opposed to intentionally throwing things into a weapon to jam it), but there was still a fair bit of “Who do you think won this match?” talk.  I actually think repeatedly hitting the ceiling against Black Adder and coming back each time is a mark against the effectiveness of Black Adder’s weapon in this match.

It’s big bot time! After being forced to run 12 O’Clocker only, I had more time to go around and appreciate the 12s and 30s. The newbie count was great at this event also – I think probably 25% first or second events.

Pictured above, The Magical Lipo-Fire or…. something or other. The build looked great! Sadly only one match however, and fortunately did not live up to its name.

First time 30lb entry “STICK A FORK IN IT!” which was having some DeWut clutch issues this event. Hey, people, read the manual! Tighten down your DeWut clutches before using!

Team JACD Season 1  principal cheerleader Andrew brings Pusheen-Bot, a pushy-bot. It’s laser-cut out of wood, so naturally it faced a chainsaw first match.  This thing actually has two 50mm outrunners in it. It’s basically BurnoutChibi in a 30lb bot, so-illustrated by Andrew riding the bot around the room before (and during…) the event.

Another new 30lber with some heavy inspiration from Clocker and megaRon (under whichever moniker Jamison decides to run it at Robot Battles…)

There were obviously a lot of bots that I skipped, and you kind of get the idea. With the return of BattleBots to a mass audience, so the hobby grows! Robot Battles, fortunately, is one of the lowest barriers-to-entry competitions there is.

12 O’Clocker all set up and with spare clamp motor installed, ready for its first match. I had immense fun in its match with Dingleframus – it was the hardest physical driving match I’ve had in a little while, and in the end, a missed charge basically caused it to hover off the stage.

Here’s “Metric Brushless Hipster 12 O’Clocker” LiftLord, a Xo creation but shown with optional interchangeable Aaron module.

12 O’Clocker ready for its first match against Abrasive Personality, a design I really want to see more of – it has a belt sander running the length of the bot, with a backstop and all. I think this kind of design needs exploring. Putting more horsepower behind it and using a super gritty belt might actually result in some serious unconventional damage.

So what the hell are those blue things on the stage that have been appearing in every video so far?

They’re my secret weapon: 3D printed model set screws. I printed about a dozen, then another dozen or so followed me to Atlanta courtesy of RocketProps. Some local folks contributed a few more…. and suddenly, a stage full of giant set screws. Robot Battles: serious business since 1967 or whatever.

Not sure what I was doing here – probably double checking the chain drive after the rumble where it was derailed due to the main sprocket being physically bent. 12 o’clocker went 1/1 plus hanging around during the rumble, which was hugely entertaining.

Well look who’s on display!  I’m told that Witch Doctor & Hypershock were also going to be present. Lies! I didn’t see any of y’all this whole weekend, so Overhaul had to have all the fans to itself. Such a sad day.

That’s a wrap for Dragon Con 2016. Once again, I’m staying a few days extra in Atlanta, and will diffuse back up north some time this week. On deck for robot work is finishing Clocker and a quick revamp of Roll Cake before FI in about 1 month. Otherwise, I’ll be hopefully creating more problems for myself with van work soon, since I want to re-winterize a few spots before things get cold (e.g. in 2 months or so). Some of my earliest rust repair is starting to come apart finally, and I have better weaponry against it now. Further down the line is word about # s e a s o n 3 and starting Overhaul….overhaul…. work in earnest. This will ideally occur over the coming winter.


Dragon Con 2015: The Before, During, and After; Stance Stance Revolution, Überclocker, and Operation STRUGGLEVAN

Sep 25, 2015 in Bots, colsonbot, Events, mikuvan, Stance Stance Revolution

I’m back yet again!

The flurry of RageBridge 2 development in the past few weeks was primarily to make sure I had a few demo units ready for folks going to Dragon Con 2015. Basically, I sent a batch down ahead of time to be integrated into some bots that were going to compete at Robot Battles, as well as prepared some for a few new local builds. There were some other things going on also, including Clocker repairs and upgrades, and yet another entirely new random beetleweight. Oh, and the harrowing tale of having Mikuvan’s engine accidentally rebuilt before departure, and the followup shenanigans!

1. The world’s first dual counter-rotating 45° spinner, because why not?

2. Überclocker’s front leg upgrades

3. The convention and Robot Battles report! Plus, panel information.

4. Operation STRUGGLEVAN; Followup from Post-Detroit Maker Faire to “How many times did I pull over to replace something this trip!?”

Stance Stance Revolution

First, we start with a heavy dose of what:

Oh no! Which way is it facing!? Which way does it spin? How does it move?! Don’t worry if you’re getting a headache looking at it. This is entirely by design.

What you are looking at is the world’s first counter-rotating 45 degree spinner! An answer to a design question literally nobody saw coming.

It all started, really, after the debut of Plan X on ABC BattleBots, with its primary weapon that spun downwards (really it could spin either way, being reversible). For the next little while, every time a new robot was presented, everyone would ask which way it spun. That led to many joke Facebook Group threads, including a snippet of this one…


Featuring Near Chaos Robotics

Well I ended up not calling it Double Helix, because shortly thereafter, I had an epiphany… the blades would have some demon camber and it had an uncanny resemblance to Counter Revolution, so…

Logo courtesy of Cynthia!

Already, I’ve taken this joke too seriously.

I sat down with a blank CAD screen to decide how I wanted to do this. It was literally going to be Counter Revolution deformed through its center axis. I planned for a beetleweight, to act as the dopey-cop counter to Colsonbot. So it was probably going to be a 3D printed unibody, like Colsonbot, for convenience so it could be put together quickly. After all, heaven forbid I take this joke too seriously.

Let the Eschering begin… I created this mockup a day or so later and posted it to great fanfare and cries of “MY EYES!!!”

The blade design was a simple porting of Jamison Go‘s DDT, for which he had several spare blades. I played around with them, but ultimately decided to go with a custom blade design.

Creating those 45 degree struts meant a whole lot of messing with reference planes and other reference geometry. I first created a rotated, offset plane from the center axis of the robot, the blade tower midplane, then made an offset plane from THAT to set the width between the towers. The towers were brute-force mirrored across the midplane, then the parts which stuck out the bottom cut off flush. This is a look at the finished frame – all these steps were taken in the first few features, as seen on the left.

The bot as seen from the front. With the midplane method, it was easy to adjust the blade “offset”. The blades aren’t shown in their final positions either, since at this point I hadn’t looked at how to drive the blades. I decided to try and push the blade “exit point” from the frame as far to the corners as possible so it was easier to aim – “Try to hit with the corners” was going to be the strategy.

After some debate, I decided to just go simple and use pancake-style multirotor motors in a direct drive configuration. My last vertical KE weapon bot, Nuclear Kitten, used a custom-machined hub motor. These days, the flat multirotor motors are much the same form factor. I didn’t expect this configuration to live too long, because those motors are not built to take direct impacts from solid steel things. Direct drive sort of went away as the energy levels present in small bot contests went up. But it would live just long enough to make everyone’s heads spin!

Shown above, the “blue” motors are some Quanum 5208 multirotor motors. I was looking for motors which had the same stator diameter & size as NK’s old motor. However, they were ultimately too heavy.

Stepping down a pay grade (or stator diameter range) were the Multistar 4822s with 40mm stators, and which were nearly 80 grams lighter. It became apparent to me while shopping for motors that putting what is basically two full size weapons for a beetleweight in one bot was going to be difficult. The 4822 motors weigh only 98 grams (less with their long wire pigtails trimmed).

Luckily they were available in a U.S. warehouse, so I was able to get them in a few days to fully model them up, as shown above.

Here’s more brainfuck for you. It might actually hurt a little more to look at from underneath.

The underside and drivetrain was going to be a contortioning game. I planned to use two 22:1 Silver Spark motors – it wouldn’t be quick, but would provide basic maneuverability for the weapons platform. The question was where to put everything else. Even simulating component placement using bounding boxes, I knew it was going to be impossible to stuff everything inside. The weapon ESCs have to go outside, mounted to the blade towers, as you’ll see.

Some finalizing work, and here’s the design. With ripped off logo and all!

A 1/8″ diameter shoulder screw forms the idler axle, and the Fingertech switch is mounted awkwardly outside one of the two symmetrical cutouts permitting wire access to the weapon motor controllers.

CAD family shot next to Colsonbot! I guess Colsonbot would be the Captain Shrederator of the world of perverted miniaturized BattleBots 2015 entries I’m making here….

I wanted to use the MarkFrog to make this frame out of nylon with fiber strands, but unfortunately it was too big in every single dimension. To make it in Nylon would have mean better impact strength, but GUYS GET ME A BIGGER MACHINE PLEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEASE! Jamison’s new DDT is all printed on this machine and it did excellently at the event. Maybe I should have scaled this to an antweight instead…

Thus, I popped the frame out in ABS plastic.

The Multistar motors arrive, so it’s time to design the blade. From looking at their product photos, I decided to make cutouts in a blade with a large inner diameter such that they sat on the endcaps, instead of being supported only by the shaft. I was also intending to use the prop adapters (which bolt on) in an external bearing to offer some semblance of double-support. Now, the aluminum these things tend to be made of is so soft I don’t think it even matters (How do they even machine it without it bending?!), but it made me feel better.

I was able to finish out the blade design and cut it out of prehardened 4140, the same plate that I made Nuclear Kitten’s blades out of all the way back in 2008! 4140 prehard isn’t THAT hard – Rockwell 30C or so, so it’s not the best choice and far inferior to a heat treated blade… but something about taking jokes too seriously.

The blade centers were dished inward a little to sit on the motor can.

Retainment was through a big aluminum machined washer. This bolted through the prop adapter, necessitating longer screws – which… GREAT! Because the screws that come with these motors are suspiciously soft for looking like black oxide cap screws. 10.8? 8.8? Probably more like -1.8.

Blades mounted. The outboard bearing is some small 6mm bore flanged bearings I had, from some unknown appliance which died valiantly (and probably chaotically) for the cause.

Remember when I said the weapon ESCs had to go outside the bot? They’re nestled in the blade trench, a half inch away from whirling death. I put in an indentation and cable tie anchoring point specifically to use a zip tie to hold them together. The motor wires are cut super short and soldered directly to the controllers.

I’d like to pause for a bit and discuss these controllers. They’re the “Afro” series from Hobbyking, and besides making me wonder how they came up with that name, I also really enjoy their extensibility. You see, the DIY multirotor community has been working on a better firmware suited their needs for years. They now have a massive database of upgraded firmwares for many of the ATMega-based brushless controllers. the Afro line evolved out of this community’s needs, and in fact contains a bootloader onboard such that you can upload new firmware using only the PWM wire – no need to try and find the programming pins on the boards. The firmwares offer many configurable options, including reversing.

Hmm. It’s piqued the interest of a few robot community folks, one of whom put together a guide on how to update the firmware to a “bot compatible” one. I performed these mods on my ESCs and did a demo video on how it affected a relatively high inertia load like a blade. The result was stellar. I dunno what Mr. SimonK did with the state estimator part of the sensorless firmware, but I can hard-reverse repeatedly without killing the ESC, and it will try to keep track of the motor all the way down to zero speed. The starting routine seems far more robust. A Hobbyking controller with stock firmware would have died instantly.

The best part is, there’s a guide on how to find the pin settings for your ESC – which opens the realm up, if I feel like exploring it, of putting it on one of these. A few builders have already done brushless drive experiments using this, and the results are far better than a stock Hobbyking car ESC with reverse functionality. Only a few bots have dared run brushless drive before now, but I suspect the smaller classes will see an explosion of ESCs of brushless drives, saving weight to get the same performance.

It also means that Brushless Rage is obsolete ;_;


Here is the real-life contortioning game. The receiver also ended up having no place to live because of the battery wires. So it gets piled on top of the battery! Luckily the battery (which is shared with Colsonbot) is short enough….

A final weigh-in… just barely under the 3lb limit!

SSR leaves very unique 45 degree impact marks on testing subjects.

Here’s a testing video showing a few hits on the empty Dimension cartridge. As you can see, it flies. One issue is the blade hitting the ground since it swings so low. I suspect in an arena with a wooden floor, it could dig in and send the bot flying, which would be most excellent indeed.

Another interesting behavior: When it hits, it tends to twirl around. I kind of want to practice the “one-two” of hitting with one blade enough to spin it around to hit with the other. This is a result of the blade having a horizontal, downward component to its impact. In this case, the rear counterrotating blade is spinning the correct direction to twist the bot opposite the direction of hit-induced turn, keeping it upright.

Finally, you can see that with enough bouncing, it will self-right very easily, doing a barrel roll in the process.

This joke is ending up more hilarious than any of us could have thought.

And a final beauty shot, if you consider it a beautiful thing.

I ended up replacing the idler rollers with hard plastic ones. I tried to link the two wheels on each side with O-rings, but the o-rings would keep sliding off since they also touched the ground. It handled well enough with “corner drive”.


Alas, poor Clocker.

After Motorama, it was sort of in a heap with a broken off front leg replaced with a chunk of cutting board. I remade 2 of the stripped hubs before a demo session to high schoolers over the summer, but besides that it’s not changed much.

For this Dragon Con, I wanted to move back to double-supported legs. Basically, while the single supported version 3 legs worked well, enough bouncing around caused the attachment parts and hardware to start stress fracturing, eventually breaking off.

Clocker version 2 had double-supported legs, but they were built in such a way that it was very difficult to service the drivetrain… and if there’s one thing Clocker v2 needed, it was drivetrain service. The reaction to this led me to the single-sided legs, but now I think if I put a liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiittle more mental energy into it, I could design the legs to use the same screw head as the drivetrain side plates, such that it doesn’t take forever to remove.

Wild idea, huh?


Growing the design from simple geometry. The legs pivot on a flanged standoff-like entity which is fully tightened to the frame. On the other side, I moved from single-shear to double-shear support for the spring.


Other side, with hardware loaded. The use of 1/4″-20 button headed screws allows me to use the same 5/32″ allen key driver to zip the entire outside on and off.

 Time to take the whole thing apart! I also ended up remaking the front axle standoffs and straightening out the inner side rails, because the single-point bending of the leg had also affected them significantly. The new legs slide right together (due to correct nozzle offset on the waterjet cutter – the one it defaults to usually leaves far too much material!) and bolt through using large standoffs. No more using the 1/8″ intermediate plate as the fastening device as on Clocker v2.

 Bolting together the springy-leg trunion side.

What the installation looks like after the flanged standoffs are installed. There’s one on each side. The inner side is Loctite’d to prevent rotation, while the outer side is free to be removed. The fit is deliberately loose to let it take some damage without binding.

 And a final overhead view of the bot. No, Clocker’s not running RageBridge 2 beta units. I leave that to my guinea pigs loyal subjects.

Dragon Con 2015

This year, I fell into a classic convention trap – doing so many panels and things with your fan track (Makers & Robotics) that you pretty much forget the rest of the con existed! I was involved in 4 panels and looked on at many more. In fact, analyzing my camera contents, I in fact only took one photo of Miku cosplayers.

That’s 99.18% less than the historical average.

First up, my Maker’s Resources panel, which was condensed down to ~1 hour (SORRY VAL!) and focused more on getting people set up with CAD. With Autodesk furiously pushing Fusion 360, it is in my opinion the current “missing link” for mechanical hobbyists and well-featured CAD programs. I got the hang of it a week beforehand, and was prepared to give a live demo, but sadly, showing off Inventor and Solidworks and Fusion 360 was too much for my computer to handle.

I was also involved in the Rapid Prototyping for Costumes panel with Chris Lee, Jamison, and Cynthia, who debuted her version3! RWBY scythe project to some dramatic fanfare.

Next up, a few of us from JACD took part in the Battlebots New Season panel with quite a few other competitors who ended up deciding to attend after hearing that the BattleBots organizers were going to be in town. Unfortunately, I had to miss the “Highlights and Memories” panel, but I told everybody to make fun of me as much as possible so I’ll await the video results from that.

Finally, I also took part in the Power Racing Series panel hosted by several local Southeast builders. We had a whole lineup of entries I was otherwise not used to seeing from teams and builders who have mostly gone to events in the region – I’d witnessed the construction of these cars on the PRS Google and Facebook groups, but they weren’t at Detroit Maker Faire. There isn’t usually much region cross-pollinating due to the races being spread far apart and the stakes not being (that) high (yet).

Luckily, this time I changed that. If forcing everyone on the New York Thruway to stare at me was bad enough, this time I trolled all of I-81:

After having rigged CMV enough times for New Yorks and Detroits, I figured that it had already traveled 1 Dragon Con or so of mileage, and therefore was eligible to be brought down to Atlanta. In 2014, I decided against this idea because there was no race and I questioned my rigging ability. As it turns out, if your load experiences several hundreds of pounds of load, or multiple G’s of acceleration, enough to break or unravel the straps, something very bad has already happenedWith this in mind, I was far more comfortable driving long distances with Chibi-Mikuvan strapped to the roof, distracting small children and tired vacationers alike. The green pallet wrapping is for bug splat prevention on the front white portions.

So this year, I signed up for the Dragon Con Parade…

PC: Jen Herchenroeder

The PRS racers got their own ‘block’ in the parade, and we (mostly) stayed together and showed off to the crowd. At the first major intersection, I decided to try something stupid and initiate some donuts. To my utter disbelief, this worked. I think it’s a combination of running in “infinity mode” (50A regulation fuse bypassed) and the rear tires being practically bald from the Detroit race. I proceeded to pull this stunt any time there was open space – most of the street intersections sufficed.

Dragon Con Parade

That is starting to look like some kind of old 16-bit racing game. Still waiting on someone to find video of it all, but with sufficiently worn-out tires, CMV can do powered donuts on dry asphalt. Hmm…. more moxie awaits at New York Maker Faire?

Immediately afterwards, we all TORE ASS DOWN COURTLAND AND PORTMAN STREET AND THROUGH THE MARRIOTT *ahem* maneuvered most of the karts into the lineup for the Power Racing Series panel.

From the evening before, a lot of the cars in a row at an impromptu car show in the Marriott. I didn’t bring CMV with me everywhere, so it sat this one out back in my mom’s garage.

Since I’ve basically been part of the Robotics & Makers panels since its inception, I’ve steadily watched not only the content variety grow, but also the skillset of the audience. This time, during my Resources talk, I’d say a strong plurality had designed something and either fabricated it manually at home, or had something 3D printed or used a makerspaces’ tools. When I polled for how many people had used CAD, a solid 75% of hands went up, and Solidworks in particular was something like 1 in 5. Damn, what do you guys need me for!?

I’m sure some of it is “audience self-selection”, but the strong gains each year in those who have tinkered with stuff on a hobbyist level impress me nonetheless. All the panels I led or were involved in were packed houses. I’m happy with anything which shows more and more folks are becoming involved in the Makerverse.

Stolen from builder Collin Royster, here’s a photo of the PRS panel. Chibi-Mikuvan is well-hidden behind the front table from this perspective.


Jim brought Nightmare up from Florida for the BattleBots panels and for general shenaniganry. I was briefly considering bringing Overhaul… sadly, it proved to be too impractical since it didn’t tessellate well with anything else, and I do not need 250 pounds on the roof. So there goes the prospects for the wimpy hotel room grudge re-match!

The staff of Big Hero 6 above are actually the three ladies of Team JACD: Hanna, Lucy, and Cynthia, who discovered their names are a great basis for their own team. Hence they splintered from JACD. I guess they were finally done with putting up with our bullshit. For Dragon Con, team HaLuCyNation built Destroying Angel:

It’s a 30lb rear-hinged lifter using 3 DeWut motors, a RageBridge, and a 6S lipoly battery. In other words, all parts that were hanging around. It was put together in little more than a the week prior (though designed for a month or more beforehand).

Moving onto Saturday evening, it’s robot time. Here, Colsonbot is getting a ‘body swap’ to the latest version of the frame. This version trims another half ounce or so off the weight by eliminating the front left and right chambers. There’s still plenty of electronics volume left. Hypothetically, this permits dual weapon motors, though I only brought the one.  There’s no other changes. I completed this swap in about half an hour, since it just entailed desoldering and resoldering.


This year, due to a Certain Robot-Oriented TV Show, both Robot Battles events had record turnout as well as a flock of new builders. The schedule was pushed to the max, even with two small bot arenas running simultaneously. The tournament had to be single elimination for expediency. Yet I’m super happy, because the builder population had been stagnant for years. Just look at how much Clocker vs. Nyx vs. Dale’s Homemade Robots there have been for the past few years.

Colsonbot won yet another match mostly due to driving – the four 11:1 Silver Sparks actually make for a very nimble drivetrain for a spinner. In its first match against Moxxi, a (mostly) wedge with a small undercutting blade which was not working well, I lost the heat shrink “tire” of the 28mm NTM motor in like 10 seconds. Therefore, the rest of the match was a pushing contest.

I’m considering moving the motor size down one notch and actually running two weapon motors, due to the limited space there is to put a “tire” – what worked the best after that match was actually winding electrical tape tightly against the rotation direction (such that it did not put force on the tape’s leading edge) for a few wraps. In its rematch against Moxxi, it spun up quite well and knocked stuff around.

It then face Jamison’s Silent Spring twice. Once by draw (no knockout or hole-shot after 2 minutes) where both bots worked consistently:

The next match was a win when SS stopped working, but Colsonbot was too damaged to be repaired in time for its next match.

It was extremely vulnerable to Silent Spring’s under-cutting blade, which took out the weapon motor and its surrounding mount area. Somehow not a single drive motor, even though the wheels were missing bits!

At least it kept driving until the end. I suppose I could have ditched the spin and made Colsonbot into a pusher, but there wasn’t really a point in doing so and it would only add to the tournament scheduling chaos. So Colsonbot exits the tournament effectively 1/1.

As for Stance Stance Revolution…

Poor Stance Stance Revolution.

In an eerie replay of Tombstone vs. Counter Revolution, I drew Silent Spring as the FIRST! beetleweight fight of the tournament! And it ended about as fruitfully.

After a flurry of blade-to-blade impacts, the ABS unibody fractured at the places it was the thinnest, and SSR broke in half. Now, to be fair, both halves DO still work….

It was really meant to be made from Nylon (using the Markfr4ck), a much higher-impact and resilient plastic, but after looking at the section areas that broke, I need to reconsider some of those parts. I intend to bring SSR right back since it’s too hilarious to not keep working. So that was it for the little bots. Damn you Jamison – I shall exact my revenge some day, probably at Franklin Institute next month.


robot battles

It’s big bot time!

This time, I had no 12lber. 12 O’Clocker required quite a bit more work than I remembered, and I couldn’t fit it into the last week’s schedule before departure.

Then I remembered I had a 12lber back in my parents’ garage.

Ahh, good old Test Bot v3.

Now sporting two different kinds of ballast – the old nickel drill pack wouldn’t revive, and that SLA brick has been in there as ballast for as long as I can recall. A spare RageBridge 1 was installed, and a tiny little lipo pack which can source more current than either of those two old batteries ever hoped to. So now I have a 12lber! It’s actually still dramatically underweight at 11.1 pounds. How did this thing ever make weight?

I mentioned earlier that both Robot Battles tournaments saw record attendance and new entries. I’d say that there were around 10 totally new bots this time, in addition to veterans who left but returned and people who have built before, just not for RB at Dragon Con. Here are a few samples of the new entries… I hope they have staying power for tournaments to come.


This pair of 12lb wedges was built by a father-son team local to the area. Named “Busted” and “Rusted”, they actually got paired up first for the first 12lber match, which was hilarious because they were also both new bot drivers…. and the bots were slow. I’m not sure what drive motors they were using, but taking it easy doesn’t even begin to describe the slowness. Lots of potential from the design, though, so perhaps a simple motor upgrade is in order for next year….

Here is “Aluminum Box”, a valiant first bot effort with a set of fairly standard components – drills on 3″ colsons. It didn’t have a weapon, but could push pretty well if it got a grip. Since this kind of design can hardly go wrong, I suspect it will have more attachments and shenanigans if it returns in the future.

I have a bit of investment in this newbie bot since the high school builders not only came all the way from New York City by train (That’s a level of dedication I will never reach, and probably never reached), they’re using a set of donated DeWuts.

A 30lb pneumatic flipper bot that did more lifting than flipping, and which used a lot of Vex gear. The lid stays put – only the center arm pops up. Unfortunately, it lost after being unable to self-right. Bigger piston time?

Jim (of Nightmare) with a wholly new 12lber, ShaBoomBox, which allegedly was put together mere hours before departure. It’s literally made of P60 gearboxes, using them as structural blocks to bind top and bottom plates together. Hey, it works. Jim has had enough practice with this kind of design since he has an antweight, and heavyweight built off the same concept.

Terry, a returning veteran, shows up with the 30lber version of Ventilator. I remembered the 60lb Ventilator way back when Robot Battles was still running 60lbers on stage (basically, before they got too terrifying with new high powered parts). Pretty sure this is in fact it with a different hammer mechanism (with less swing) and without the big round shell…

HaLuCyNation gets some Dragon Con TV press attention before their first match.

Alas, poor Clocker.

The careful reader will notice that in its update section, I merely said “I remade the stripped hubs”. No, I didn’t remake them better, I remade them as-is. That decision pretty much ended the way everyone expected, including me, because no matter how loud I was screaming “This is going to be REALLY SKETCHY” at myself, I didn’t listen.

Clocker, therefore, did not do too much this tournament. It had two tournament, with 2 (effective) losses, and the only win being against HaLuCyNation. In fact, the problem first cropped up in the exhibition match where the organizers of BattleBots themselves(Trey and Greg) drove the bots. Gee, with that embarrassment, will I ever be allowed back into Season 2!?

Subsequent to the match against Destroying Angel, I ran out of drive options. I decided to throw it into the rumble as a stationary arena hazard, grabbing whomever I got shoved up against…

…and won? All of the “plate and standoff fork” robots briefly got tangled up, then something happened which made everyone else bail off the stage. I still can’t quite figure out what happened, but… Yay! Clocker won something by doing absolutely jack shit! Perhaps that should just be my strategy from now on, seeing as how I seemingly insist on shooting myself in the foot in terms of mobility every time. The hex hub system is nice…. if I can bother to do it right. Part of the issue is weight – Clocker is bumped right against the 30lb limit with the plastic hubs, but that was with the previous thick aluminum pole legs up front. I actually didn’t re-weigh it right before leaving. Most likely, I have the weight for aluminum hubs like they were originally meant to be.

This event was supposed to be Clocker’s Last Tournament™, but I refuse to let my machinery die of stupidity… so I’m just going to make the aluminum hubs for Franklin Institute ಠ____ಠ

Test Bot fared a little better for itself. I was quite out of practice driving it, and being underweight didn’t help pushing traction as much. It lost to Omega Force after a spirited pushing and driving match ending in a 360 degree flip (There were 2 halves to this match – after the first one, the unrestrained battery knocked the logic power inductor off the Ragebridge 1 board, which I jumped 5V to using an offboard BEC) It then won against Aluminum Box before losing to Test Bot v4. Actually, I meant Dolos, but I sold the TB4.5 frame to Mike, whose friend is operating it with modifications as Dolos! In other words… good, the newer version was better than the older one.

In the 12lb rumble, I sent Test Bot into the fray (after starting it in a nonsensical position because come at me) and lasted up until the end when I ran straight into the loving hug of Hypnos, which TB seemed to fit perfectly square into.

Now that I have Test Bot v3 back in my possession, I’ll probably keep it operational (and loaded up to 12 pounds) as a handy practice bot.

That concludes all the robot shenanigans this time. None of the bots I brought made a spectacular showing, and it might seem that I’m losing interest in them with my hurried repairs and modifications, but what balanced it out was helping so many new folks out with their bots. I think I’ve been around the block enough to “get it”… and seeing so many new builders this time, many of which I connected with online before and dispensed questionably-sagely advice to, in attendance at this event meant to me that I really built like 5 or 6 robots :p

Overall, the time constraints and preferred format of Robot Battles was showing its limits here this year. You can only have so many bots before the “show” is forced to become a tournament. The “two out of three” system really adds to the length of match times, and with the convention seemingly unwilling to allot more time to RB, some hard decisions about the future of the tournament might be needed if the popularity of BattleBots keeps up.


Be prepared for the most action packed van adventure yet!

Not that it’s a good thing. In fact, I’d strongly have preferred to not deal with any of it, but now that I’ve had to fix it before, during, and after Dragon Con, everything finally works great! Can I go to Dragon Con now?!!

The story begins during Detroit Maker Faire. I didn’t notice exactly when in particular, but at some point I stopped to refuel and noticed that hey, it sounds a little like an idling school bus. An idling pulsation that was steady, and which went away once I stepped on the throttle a little but which was noticeable when trying to accelerate at low speed. It gradually became worse and worse as the trip progressed, but I was at least able to make it back into town. While unsteady at low speeds, it was smooth on the highway despite noticeably lacking some power.

Thus began the teardown. I was thinking a fuel system problem, specifically perhaps a malfunctioning injector. Too bad the symptoms literally pointed to everything; from said injector or perhaps an ignition/spark plug issue, all the way up to blown head gaskets and cracked pistons.  Give that I had some time after Detroit Maker Faire, I dove in and did some testing as well as replacement of parts I had on hand.

I started with the obvious – using a timing light to double check that the spark plugs were getting voltage. I also just went ahead and replaced the plugs, since the ones that were installed were “Original-as-of-when-I-got-it-running” crappy plugs picked up at Autozone in 2013. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary.

I next tried a vacuum test. It turns out you can deduce a whole lot about the state of an engine if you have a vacuum gauge and know a couple of other variables about the engine. It was easy to shove the gauge into the brake booster vacuum line and run it a few times. But to me, it showed nothing out of the ordinary either, besides the manifold vacuum being a bit short of normal.

Well, with a whole lot of physical things wrong with the vibrating metal bits of the engine seemingly ruled out, I decided to take an intermission to just also replace the fuel system parts.

The injectors are reasonably accessible, but to reach them, a few hoses, connectors, and surrounding components had to be disconnected. To not utterly fuck up on the assembly, path, I marked the steps with numbers. So clearly, if I have to do this again, I can just follow my own breadcrumbs!

In a “Well, I’m already this deep” moment, I swapped in a new ignition coil for the old one, because why not!

A kit of new Bosch spark plug wires also made it on. The ones in there were unmarked and of unknown vintage and quality, so why not!

All of this above effort, of course, did not affect the problem at all, which was persisting – not getting better nor worse, but staying just out of reach such that I could still trundle over to Harbor Freight but most definitely not to Dragon Con. Well, it was T-minus 3 weeks at this point, and that was not a preferred state of things…

One thing I noticed, especially during the latter half of the Detroit trip, was how much more quickly it was losing oil. Specifically losing – it wasn’t burning, but just puking everywhere out of every opportune area. For instance, this is what the oil cap area and valve cover looked like after a trip to Home Depot or something.

That oil vapor also looked really suspicious, though the Internet seemed to suggest some amount of vapor is normal. Regardless, the “oil being forced out of places” scenario seemed to support the crankcase being pressurized abnormally, since it is supposed to be constantly evacuated by the PCV System. The problem being “just” the PCV valve seemed unlikely, because why would it only run badly in one cylinder? I double checked and cleaned the PCV valve anyway.

The rabbit hole was beginning to get a bit deeper.

I borrowed a compression testing gauge to check those numbers. Really I should have done this first, because

  1. 182 PSI
  2. 180 PSI
  3. 32 PSI ಠ _____ ಠ
  4. 180 PSI

The number 3 cylinder showed very little compression. No matter what, at this point, the head had to come off. I pinged the good folks at Smooth Automotive (within hobbling distance, and with whom I’ve done plenty of business already) to get an assessment – yes, head gasket failures into oil passages (hence the crankcase) can happen, but it’s more likely to be between cylinders 2 and 3 (which was ruled out, because cylinder 2 had good compression) or into a coolant passage, upon which I would see effects in the cooling system or engine butter, neither of which were present.

What it effectively meant was that I was at minimum needing a head gasket and at most…. there’s no bottom to the rabbit hole until it is reached!

With Dragon Con departure being now 2 weeks away, I decided to throw it in, and let them work their professionlulz magic. You see, a more sane person would PUSSY OUT rent a car, perhaps, but that ruins more than half the point of the trip for me, so I was willing to play my Automotive Wheel of Fortune game for now.

I got to watch the process firsthand and pester them with “Ooh, what does this do?” questions. Here is the single overhead camshaft in all its glory. They got it to this stage within… oh, like half an hour. Gee, it’s almost like you guys do this every day or something. For instance, I didn’t even know that the giant octopus of wire harnesses and throttle cables just came off as a single block to be set aside.

Oh god. The head came off. WHERE IS THE HEAD? WHERE DID IT GO?

Right here. I can’t explain why there’s exactly 1 white valve, but everything else has been leaking oil into the cylinders – Mikuvan is well known for an occasional small smokescreen on a cold start, a classic sign of worn out valve guide seals.

Here is a “literally, leak-down test” in progress. What it showed was that cylinders 1 and 4 were well-sealed, cylinder 2 and 3 were less so. The difference between 2 and 3 is that this photograph was taken the day after, and according to them, cylinder 3 was gone within a few minutes. With cylinder 2 showing good compression when I tested, cylinder 3 became the culprit.

And there it is. At the end of it all was destroyed piston ring lands. This was unfortunate, because it took the better part of a week (of on-and-off work – I’m clearly far from the only customer) to get here, and now many parts need to be obtained. Besides the obvious such as new gaskets and seals, and a timing belt set, I needed at least 1 new piston and ring set. Nobody in their usual parts supplier lineup had any. I would not have expected any different, really, because who the hell stocks parts for an obscure model of 1980s van that was mostly sold in California?!

Fortunately, Rock Auto had 1 full kit of pistons in stock. I will forever love Rock Auto, because this post has been a rolling advertisement for them (all of the parts I replaced myself came from them at some binge-purchasing point…)

And here they are!

We decided to only replace piston #3 for now. The cylinder wall did not exhibit scuffing or other damage (….somehow), and since all the other cylinders showed good compression, and time was of the essence, it was the quickest way to get rolling. If the cylinder wall itself was damaged, that would have been the end of the game, and I would have better spent my time welding up a mounting cage for a Siemens 1PV5135 motor. Besides, now that I have witnessed this whole process, I can do it all myself! Muahahahahahaha. That will end splendidly.

None of it ended up being exceptionally difficult, but just in areas I had never been and did not want to waste time fucking around before a major trip. The pistons are easily accessible with the oil pan and cylinder head removed – the “big end” bolts are in the open, and they pop out from the top.

While this work was occurring, the cylinder head was also being rebuilt by an associate shop specializing in engine block and cylinder head operations, Arlington Automotive Machine. New valve guides and seals, reground valve seats, and new hydraulic valve lifters were in order since all of the (original?) ones had long died (This manifested itself in the classic “tappeting” sound when the engine hadn’t yet warmed up).

All told, this adventure cost me $1700 not including parts. But the end result not only worked beautifully, it also sounded way, way better. It also revealed where all the exhaust leaks were, because now that the engine was properly running and the valves were actually stiff and responsive, the rustiest parts of pipe and the most weathered of gaskets began giving way! Yay!

and we haven’t even left for dragon con yet

It’s Tuesday afternoon, September 1st, and it was time to leave for Dragon Con. Cynthia and I packed everything up and rigged Chibi-Mikuvan to the roof.

An old heater hose explodes before we made it to the highway. Oh, right, the water pump was also replaced as part of a front-end operation (“When you’re down this deep…”) and the newly healthy engine and increased coolant pressures made the old pipe very sad. That is a photo of the broken portion of the pipe drooling coolant, which I took from underneath on the side of Memorial Drive in Cambridgeshire.

I hobbled back to Smooth Automotive running air-cooled half the way since the coolant loop bled out very quickly. I was horrified at the prospect of potentially cooking my BRAND NEW HEAD GASKET to overheating like…. 2 days after getting it done, so when possible, I shifted into neutral to coast, and gently revved the engine to fan itself. This hose was in the rear heater core loop, so the quick hack applied was to bypass it entirely. I plan on un-bypassing it soon, since fall is approaching.

Next, somewhere in southern Connecticut, I lose the speedometer. Something felt a little weird, so I look down and was pretty sure I was not going 0mph.

What the f….

That’s the speedometer cable I’m holding, which attaches to the output of the transmission through a little worm gear. It has a collar which screws onto said attachment point. This collar seems to have loosened up and gradually backed itself out.

This is the only photo I have of the process…

No, I didn’t cut off the cable. The driving spline portion which mates the two haves is probably still hanging out on I-95 somewhere, but in essence, it’s a small metal key that fits into the slot in the cable end and has a mating slot in the transmission end. Just a simple peg with two keyed portions. So what piece of material did I have which could approximate the key?

I purchased those jigsaw blades on a whim from some hardware store years ago and they’ve been sitting in the center console since. It turns out the steel stock they’re made from is a perfect fit width and thickness-wise to act as the speedometer cable key.

So I broke off a chunk of jigsaw blade, dipped it in motor oil for lubrication, shoved it in there, and went on my way with a speed reading again. Maybe I was actually worse off for this, because I definitely drove with more care when I didn’t have a direct speed readout.

Fortunately, all seemed uneventful for the rest of the trip until I got close(ish) to Atlanta – around “late South Carolina-ish”, I started getting some intermittent power loss at high revs on the Interstate.

cue ominous music

Being extra paranoid, I scheduled a check-in with Suwanee Auto Repair, which appeared to be very reputable for my area, with focus on the fuel system since that’s what it felt like (highly scientific terms here…) They reported no abnormalities with fuel pressure, injectors, and filter, and also recommended I get some water remover for fuel (e.g. HEET) in case there was water contamination in the fuel system. With nothing else presenting itself locally, I was comfortable driving back up to Boston, but with one catch – I’d return to the I-95 route which I had sworn off, because it was much closer to civilization in general and I had possible bailout points and friends with trucks along the way. Just, you know, paranoia. Just because the van is working, it doesn’t mean everyone’s not out to get you.

The order of events on September 8th was:

be south of Richmond, VA

> can’t rev past 4,000

be nearing Richmond, VA

> can’t rev past 3000 or go past 55mph

be in Richmond, VA

> stall out in the middle of town for a good 10 minutes

gently hobble towards Advance Auto Parts

> barely keep up with 25mph local traffic, limited to basically high-idling

Something was not happy. Falling back onto the symptoms I knew well from last year, I was still 99.95% convinced it was a fuel system problem. But swapping in my “crash kit” fuel filter – which I now keep a spare of in the back at all times, because fuck the world – didn’t resolve the problem at all. It would simply come back after less than a mile. Something was causing a severe constriction in the fuel feed, worse than last time. And like last year, I couldn’t cross-debug anything else that was wrong, the ECU blinked no Hobbyking-esque codes, and even calling up Frank at Smooth Automotive for some heartfelt remote diagnostics ruled out anything else.  Once again, I was stuck in Virginia with a van of dubious functionality. And a town ending in “burg” was nowhere to be found, so what should I do!?

As I was low on fuel at this point anyway, I decided to grab a gallon or two more, in case I had to hobble to a shop or to a hotel. I didn’t want to get a full tank, in case I had to drain it at the side of the road.

> runs beautifully

This got me thinking. Something about just getting gas caused it to start running again. But not all the way – I could still barely rev past 4,000 RPM. Whatever is upstream of the fuel filter is causing the problem. It dawned on me that it might be the fuel pump itself, but I replaced that in 2014… before the Dragon Con 2014 trip which ended in me feeling gassy. But the fuel pump itself has a intake filter on it, the little sock-looking thing filled with fuel-resistant teddy bear plush.

I still am wondering why there is a filter on my filter and why these two filters can’t be 1. the same one and 2. outside the fuel tank. But the bottom line then was that I had to drop the fuel tank to investigate. Dusk was settling, and I faced a choice between finding a shop which could look at it ASAP or winging it to at least Washington D.C. where I had some cohorts summoned. The area of north of Richmond I was in (Google Maps tells me it’s called “Glen Allen”) was healthy with automotive services, but they were all booked and busy – the earliest opportunity being the next day, with no guarantees.

Therefore, I made a betting-man’s decision to try and drown whatever was causing the blockage with fuel. I went back to the same Shell station and filled completely up. I even rocked Mikuvan left and right by pushing on it while filling up, which probably made me look like a lunatic to everybody else. All to try and dislodge any material that was hypothetically in the fuel pump intake sock.

Using this witchcraft, I was able to cruise to Baltimore without significant trouble keeping up with traffic. By the time I got past Baltimore, the issue had begun to return, so I stopped to top off again. The problem was that the clog was clearly pulling itself back together quicker than I could run through fuel – which, with restrictions to begin with, I was getting spectacular gas mileage. This was utterly unsustainable – I was going to have to drain and waste a full tank of gas in the near future if this kept up, and if that is the case, I’d rather lose 1 day and have the fuel tank totally cleaned and inspected.

I decided to call ahead to my dad, who luckily lives in New Jersey right now,and explain to him slowly how his son has insisted on getting in trouble with his old broken truck again. The plan was to coast fashionably into New Brunswick and find a shop in the morning after some sleep. Driving 50 to 55mph on the New Jersey Turnpike is one of those things I strongly prefer not to do again.

In the morning, I rolled into E-G Tire & Auto Center in Dayton. The E-G part stands for Edison Generator, which is a way more badass name – I asked why the business changed names, and it seems that the owner simply spun off the car repair business when he sold Edison Generator-the-business-that-does-electrical-stuff. I’m quite fond of “old style” company names, because fuck stupid postmodern one-made-up-word startup names, and power to Big Chuck’s Robot Warehouse & Auto Body Center.

Oh, luckily they’re a tire shop too, because on the way there, this happened.

Welcome to New Jersey. Fuck you and don’t come back.

This was about 70% my fault and 30% Fuck You; I’ve gotten a bit careless with shaving curbs in Boston and Cambridge, admittedly, but New Jersey-class curbs are made of sharp stone mixed with some domestically-produced Fuck You. In fact, this happened across the street from E-G, but because it’s New Jersey, the nearest way to turn around to get to them was a mile away. Not wanting to risk driving and damaging the rim, I had to mount the spare tire in clear view of the tire shop that’s going to fix it.

In fact, they recognized Mikuvan by make and model, from my pre-arrival call, and had actually been watching wondering why I was just parked across the street highway whatever New Jersey calls its roads where you cannot physically ever make a U-turn.

E-G was a nice and friendly place to hang out while they dropped the tank and had a look. In fact, the chief tech’s son was a huge BattleBots fan, so I got to provide my first random celebrity moment, I suppose? No, that did not discount my labor rate.

Here is the fuel pump intake sock as-extracted…

You can’t really see it here, but if I squeeze the little bag, the whole thing turns black and it feels very, very mushy and most definitely not like a synthetic fuel-resistant teddy bear. This part was replaced, along with the main fuel filter again, just in case – they are fairly cheap, and as long as We’re This Deep and very paranoid….

By 3PM on the 9th, I was back on my way again.

I decided to save the old intake sock as a memento piece to my statistically improbable luck with fossil fuels. Here it is cut up to reveal the inner layers!

The observant might be wondering why Suwanee Auto Repair didn’t catch this as a problem. While I think they could have dug deeper or performed a more thorough test, I really only gave them Friday before Dragon Con to do so. With the understanding that I needed it back by closing time, they did not inspect the fuel tank because I asked specifically to check the filter and everything forward of that (e.g. injectors) – since that was what bit me in the past. Good quality repair work always takes time, as my experience with Smooth Automotive showed. Unless you literally know exactly what is going down, it is better to let theprofessionals you hire do their work thoroughly. If I had been wrong about the fuel pump intake, then my trip to E-G would also have been frivolous (minus the dose of good ol’ New Jersey Fuck You).

So that’s the story of how I made it back into town with 3 winter tires and 1 dorky all-season, an accidentally-mandatory engine rebuild, a piece of jigsaw blade embedded in an improper location, and a refreshed fuel system! Now that everything works incredibly well, I’m back making midnight speedruns to Chinatown! going to New York Maker Faire this weekend. All said and done, this trip cost a little north of $2100 for all the servicing and repairs needed.

See you at the side of the Milford service plaza on 95!

Some Random Little Things Updates! Caddiebike, RUSTY MEMORY Part III, and Inexpensive Chinese LED Lighting

Nov 02, 2014 in caddiebike, mikuvan

Here at Big Chuck’s Robot Warehouse & Auto Body Center, the fall semester is generally the quiet one where I actually, you know, get things done. I’m not herding go-karts during this time, unlike the spring and summer, so it’s shop facility upgrades and working on stuff at a less frantic pre-competition pace. Like last year, there’s also a section of the popular “How to Make [A Mess Out Of] (Almost) Anything” class running in the IDC fab shops, and I run orientations and trainings on our equipment for those students and more. In fact, life is so chill right now that I haven’t even touched Chibi-Mikuvan since Miku Expo. That’s how bad it is.

Of course, this just means “big van work”, among other things. Here’s a general recap of the past month, or thereabouts.


Also known as “that huge e-bike thing”… or “the battleship”, this thing was part of the inaugural cruft run, the first of many, that a running big-Mikuvan has enabled. It’s a Wavecrest Tidalforce iO cruiser bike, with a step-through frame. This thing is massive – it weighs something like 65 pounds in stock configuration, and its soft and boat-like handling earned it the nicknames shown. It’s been hanging out in the shop for nearly the past year in a quasi-operational state.

With the advent of another promising winter, I’ve decided to ‘resto-mod’ it into something usable. Melonscooter, in all its incarnations, just does not do snow at all. The fat scooter tires means you float above the snow and can’t get either traction or stability, and both wheels gradually turn into solid balls of snow. On the other hand, bikes do somewhat better, especially road bikes with thin profile tires, since they ‘cut through’ the snow – the phenomenon is something I observed very clearly watching people try to commute during winter, and borrowing a bike or two. You’re also higher off the ground in a bike, so the black slush that the snow inevitably becomes after 24 hours stays a little farther away.

To get the bike to a functional state, I decided to ditch the front hub battery like many who inherit them. There’s a small community of Wavecrest enthusiasts who have documented mods and changes to make. In particular, I’ve been in contact with Ambrose of ebikerider about the nuances of using the bike with an aftermarket battery.

First mission was to get a new front rim, since the battery-laden front rim was being removed. I rolled it over to the bike shop for a quick appraisal and parts recommendation. Cambridge Bicycle and MITERS go way back, so I usually patronize them when I can.

They also get to put up with a slew of student questions along the theme of “How can I use this on a go-kart?” at the end of each semester from me, so I also feel bad if I don’t use their business for a legitimate purpose.

Notice the the added cargo box and bag on the back. This was where I was going to put the new battery pack; specifically, the battery will go into the center cavity, leaving the upper cavity above it and the side bags free for actually carrying stuff. All of these bags ‘telescope’ a little, so it’s a fair amount of enclosed space.

Observe, enough lithium to level a small city block.

I decided to dig through the lipo nuclear arsenal to assemble a pack. To my delight, these four 4.5Ah 10S lithium polymer packs fit perfectly, four across, in the center of the bike bag. So that was a quick decision.

These are actually the batteries from the very first generation of tinykart before Shane switched to A123 cells. They have been sitting in various rooms for a while, so the first order of business is to fully charge and balance them both. I borrowed a TP1430C charger from Peter while I purchased one and it was on the way.

Surprisingly, they were in good health and all reached 4.2 volts a cell without incident. LiPo batteries like this tend to be a little more fragile because of their soft shell.

To join the packs in parallel, I had to make another Adapter Which Should Not Be Made, a 5-to-1 Deans adapter using 8mm bullet connectors as the wire-joining socket. I used the Big Weller with the 1/2″ diameter tip for this join-five-12-gauge-wires-at-once job. To prevent errant shorting when plugging in more batteries, each of the male Deans connector ends is shrouded in loosely-shrunk heat shrink tubing.

The other end of the adapter goes to a 45A Anderson PowerPole connector which is used throughout the bike.

The final outfit, with a new wide 26″ front rim. I also replaced the back-curving ‘cruiser’ style handlebars with straight bars that I could stand using. I’m not sure why the cruiser style bars are popular, but my wrists clearly were installed in the wrong orientation for me to use them comfortably. The LED cluster a cheap “56 LED” (That’s the only model name I can find for it) bike light I bought long ago for Melonscooter 1 whose mount I lost, but that was resolved with a 3D printed part.

…and that’s it! It hasn’t been hotmodded to hit 65mph (yet), nor can it go from Boston to New York (yet). I’ve put about 30 to 35 miles on it, on purpose, to test out the speed and range. With the lithium pack, I empirically obtained a range of 25 miles before the motor controller’s own low voltage protection kicked in. This was without me helping it much – if I put some work into it, I’m sure the range will be much greater.

Caddiebike is named such in homage to the floaty ride characteristics of old American ‘land yacht’ luxury cars, since it (still) weighs over 50 pounds and has very soft shock absorbers.

Operation: RUSTY MEMORY Part III

Van bodywork begets more van bodywork. The skills I had to learn and practice on big van work contributed to my ability to tackle Chibi-Mikuvan’s body shell, and the improvement in those skills I got from Chibi-Mikuvan is applied back to big-Mikuvan. I’m trapped in an infinite van loop.

Once again, the onset of cold weather is the impetus for fall-season bodywork. There are still a few problem rust spots that I haven’t gotten to, such as what I consider to be the ‘end boss’ area, the boarding steps, which have holes on both sides. However, for now, I have the area shielded from most water intrusion, so it hasn’t gotten worse.

Last month, I wanted to repaint some more of the very problematic left side. For some reason, the left side of this thing is way more scratched and dented. In particular, the left rear corner had been deteriorating for some time:

I originally wanted to sand down this area a little and just perform a simple repaint, but of course, due to the effects of Famous Last Van Words, there is no such thing as “just [verb] a simple [noun]“. By the time you see the rust bubble, it means it’s too late. The lower corner of the wheelwell is pretty well disintegrated, but I declared it “out of scope” for the day and just proceeded with repainting the dent at the top, which seems like somebody sideswiped a solid object very slowly.

Here’s the area cleaned up a little. The bottom corner has now been “scab picked” so the extent of the hole is visible.

Early October is the last time it’s warm enough to paint outdoors. Even so, I made sure to bring a heat lamp out and point it at the job as I applied more coats.

An area at the front was also repaired during this same session, since just because they write “AUTOMOTIVE” on a can of paint, does not make it fuel-resistant. The occasional fuel pump spill in that area has eaten the clear and color coat a little.

I left the area around the hole unpainted and marinating in “rust converter” spray for the next week or so while I waited on a good opening to bust into the FSAE and Solar Car team shop, where the auto lift is. It is often joked that I will eventually turn the whole thing into a composite-bodied solar car.

Here’s the hole after some more ‘scab picking’. The idea is to trim the area clean with a Dremel, cutting wheel, and abrasive grinding bits, then add several layers of fiberglass cloth, then smooth to shape.

From the inside, here’s a view of where the metal has degraded into holes. This part will be cleaned and trimmed also. In fact, since this is not on a very highly visible part of the vehicle, I am actually just amputating the entirety of the lower inside corner there, where the “bite mark” is taken out, instead of trying to reshape it.

Everywhere there is rust, there is a small rust demon that must be exorcised.

In the middle of the hole-bridging process. My standard so far has been 3 layers of glass, which I surmise makes the region actually more rigid than the rest of the thing. I don’t like to half-ass repairs: if I do something, it’s full-ass, but still ass.

After the resin sets, it’s time to build up the corner with Bondo a bit. I still hate Bondo, but it’s so useful as a material for this kind of work. It’s almost like they designed it for this purpose or something.

There’s two stages of Bondo-work that I seem to do now; first, is “glob on with reckless abandon”, roughly sculpting said reckless abandon to shape, then finely sanding to a visual contour.

A 2nd round then goes on to fill hole and low spots, and that’s when I put away the power sander and resort to hand sandpaper-pushing, since the power sander would be too aggressive at that point.

Here’s the result of “pass 1, fine sculpt”. There’s still some uneven spots to be filled in.

After pass 2, it’s time for priming and painting. I’m not a classic car restoration neckbeard, so the details are not perfect – the oblique lighting in fact reveals the small errors in the contour I left.

I am a adherent of the 5-foot school of cosplay costume creation and automotive bodywork: If it looks fine from like 5 feet away under daylight, and functions fine, then I’m cool with it.

In fact, the only way someone would see this if they were running their hands along it. And if someone is feeling up the underside of my van, then I might need to have a few words with ‘em.

The few little black spots are accidental spillovers of the thick black underbody coating paint that I thoroughly smothered the obverse of this area in. The little bit of “orange peel” effect reflected by the room lights was taken care of also.

Letting everything sit overnight under the influence of a large halogen work lamp, here’s the result the next day!

There’s only two major rust removal project left on this thing – the area just behind the front left wheel, which had the most extensive large-area damage, and of course the step holes.

Inexpensive Chinese LED Lighting

Ah, another Inexpensive Chinese name, unfortunately not nearly as cool as ICBM (Inexpensive Chinese Brushless Motor), which I’m glad has spread beyond my immediate influence.

Under the category of “I have nothing left to fix, so I have to start making problems” van work is replacing all the auxiliary lighting with LEDs. I originally conceived this as a step on the way to electrification in order to reduce the power consumption of lighting and other vehicle systems. So perhaps, it’s just keeping the dream alive. Based on the prevalence of 5W “T10″ type bulbs, I calculated that I could reduce the power draw of the auxiliary lighting by 66%.

The plan is to replace all the dashboard warning and info icon lights, interior lights, and all the exterior market lights, reverse lights, brake lights, but not turn signals. Why? Because the flasher unit is an older mechanical type, so it counts on the high current draw of filament light bulbs to function. It’s also deep in the dashboard area. No, it’s not located on the fuse panel like a reasonable engineer would do so. This is a job for another day.

I gradually forgot about this as other van shenanigans took over, but DealExtreme made the critical mistake of showing me a promotion for automotive LED replacement bulbs a few weeks ago and made me remember again. The pain is real.

This is what happened. This isn’t the entire haul, either – I also haunted eBay and Amazon simultaneously like when hunting for any other Chinese-supplied resource, and got a few better deals and other form factors from there.

In the fashion I typically preach when it comes to procuring Chinese parts for peoples’ projects, I “shotgun selected” these bulbs. Meaning, I bought a whole bunch of variations and small specification differences to cross correlate which ones are clones and which actually perform up to their nameplate. The fact that you have to do this is a pretty important consequence of buying cheap Chinese parts that many engineers and makers fall victim to, which some of my students get a taste for in 2.00gokart.

I chose to go “middle of the road” sorted by price. One of my own rules of thumb when it comes to Chinese sourcing is to never buy the cheapest thing unless you’re out to use it for something other than its stated purpose; and the most expensive thing is basically like buying from a “real” name brand or established vendor, so you might as well just do that for customer support and service.


The dashboard job was actually quite quick, since I only had to remove the instrument panel and not the whole dashboard. The backlighting was made of three T10/W5W lamps, which I replaced with “1 watt” LED clusters, and the small icons were all T5 miniature bulbs with the exception of the fuel level indicator, which was weird (I later found out it was called a “T4.7″, but I am not going back in for just 1 light right now).

I chose these for all T10 size lamps, so I have a few different colors – white, warm white, red, and amber. I am not a fan of “warm white” in general, even in indoor lighting, and getting rid of the awkwardly yellow “white” lights was part of the reasoning behind this changeover, but just in case WW looked less out of place in one application, I wanted to have it on hand.

For the T5 miniature bulbs, I got these super cute one-LED things in several different colors. As it turns out, the dash icons themselves were colored filters, so I couldn’t use all my fancy colors like cool white and blue and Miku aqua and the like – they just looked “off”, or even greenish, which I would not want as a “You have no oil pressure.” warning light… So they became all red, with the exception of the turn signal indicators, which I used the green ones on, and even switching those out had a visible effect on the flashing frequency of the signals (hence why the external bulbs have to stay Analog until I dig out the flasher unit)

I also found out that the high beam indicator appears to be wired directly to a relay, or is otherwise strongly influencing the circuit, because I totally put a LED in that location and then had no high beams. Analog electrical systems…

In classic “Unintentional Van Consequences” fashion, lowering the power draw of the front electrical harness drastically meant the voltage rose much higher…. and blew out some of the tiny little bulbs living in the switches and buttons. Now, these things I am certain are weird and proprietary.

I had to repair these by soldering in small green LEDs and 1/8W resistors. The photo shows an exaggeration of the lighting gradient in the buttons – they’re quite even in color when you look at them.

All of the exterior marker lights are replaced with LED equivalents in the proper colors.

All interior lights were of the 29mm “Festoon” type, but there were few choices in that size, so I decided to go to the 31mm Festoon and bend the contacts out a little. They’ll live.

The “12-SMD” replacement seems to be the most popular in this size, so I got a handful of these in red and white.

The thing I’m most proud of, though, are these “buttheadlights”. I went all-out and wondered what would happen if I replaced the incandescent bulb with something of the same wattage – 10 watts. The answer is buttheadlights.

The reversing and brake lights are type 1156 and 1157 respectively, and I got these for the reversing lights. I actually am now having second thoughts about replacing the brake lights with their red equivalents, because these things are so bright it’s borderline dangerous to someone behind me. I think I’ll plunder some 5W or smaller ones in a similar form factor later.

During my shopping for all of these lights, I discovered they currently do make LED sealed-beam-replacement headlights. I’m not entirely convinced they work well, though, and they’re also still very expensive. Here’s another vendor I was looking at, and these appear to be the “Chinese copy-and-paste philosophy” off-brand kinds.

LED Lessons

There are a number of caveats for those who want to go LED that I discovered in this adventure, and they surround the nameplate rating and physical form factor.

First, shady Chinese parts being shady (but well-lit?) Chinese parts, some of the LED chips seem to be very overdriven or overrated. Specifically, amber/orange and red LEDs have more of a problem with this in my collection than the white, blue, green, etc. This is probably due to the much lower foward voltage of the semiconductor used to make red LEDs (yellow, orange, and so on are based off red LEDs), and the current-limiting resistor being improperly selected. This is hard to fix if the resistor isn’t out in the open, and almost makes switching not worthwhile because of the re-engineering needed

The symptom is lots of heat generation and the LED dims after a while, and some of the wire bonds might even fail and cause one of the dies to go out. The small single-chip T5 lights and the small 1156 sized amber lights I bought have this problem, the T10 size and the “buttheadlight” 9W 1156 lamps did not. This seems to be hit or miss, and so I’d caution people away from buying on the cheap unless you actually do love messing with these things like I do.

Second, you might notice that a lot of these bulbs are way bigger than their equivalent incandescent packages. This is an issue for marker lights, interior lights, etc. where the bezel isn’t very large. At least, you could hold up your bulb to an image of the product and see roughly how much larger it is. Otherwise, you could have to sacrifice brightness for fit purposes.

I got lucky in that the only bulb I bought which didn’t fit directly was the orange front side marker lights, and that was a length discrepancy small enough that I just cut half of the contacts on the circuit board off. But I can’t even imagine how some of those ridiculous corn cob shaped LED wads even begin to fit in their specified form factors. That product right there is my favorite example of “Chinese copy and paste design philosopy” – take what works, then CTRL-C & CTRL-V.

I’m not sure how much more buying the cheap LEDs on heat sinks will help – heat sinks only prolong the time until thermal stress and failure if they’re enclosed in a bubble like most automotive lighting is. That’s why even most home lighting LED products caution against using it in enclosed or recessed light fixtures, because LEDs still generate lots of heat – they’re often cited as “3 times more efficient” than incandescent bulbs or something, but that’s because their luminous efficiency is like 10% instead of 3%. The rest of the 90% is still heat.

I’d say the bottom line here is, I like my glowy cool-white Tron lights enough to shotgun the market and mess with products; if you just want straight up replacements with no hassle, I’m actually not sure what to tell you…

Dragon Con 2014: The Wrapup, or, Operation: I FEEL GASSY, plus Panel Resources

Sep 14, 2014 in Bots, Events, mikuvan, Pad Thai Doodle Ninja, Pop Quiz 2, Twelve O'Clocker, Überclocker ADVANCE

Around this time last year, I said;

I’m back.

Somehow, and not broken down in western Maryland or something

Well, it wasn’t western Maryland per se…. but we’ll get to that. In the intervening week between Dragon Con 2014 and now, resetting the shop from its post-robot season disaster (which immediate followed the post-gokart season disaster) for the fall classes has taken up most of my time.

In addition, I’m seeing to it that the MIT Mini Maker Faire happens! In three weeks, I can hopefully roll out of bed into our own Maker Faire… but of course there’s logistics and administration to figure out before then! If you are planning on being in the area, hit us up.

The story of Dragon Con 2014 begins, as usual, with van stuffing. For expedient access to the panel slides and info, go here.

The one feature of this generation of Mitsubishi Delicas that’s saved me countless times is the squared off rear hatch area. You almost never see this any more with modern “bubble” designs, and even the two other “Van” models of the same era had cut off angular hatches (However, it seems to be making a comeback in the latest generation of Nissan Quest, whose JDM model, the Nissan Elgrand, I like way better).

I can put like 16 cubic feet straight up in the hatch area. A 18″ wide aluminum suitcase fits perfectly, oriented lengthwise, three across and three tall. So basically, the van-stuffing strategy has been, since last year, consolidate everything into suitcases and 30-quart plastic bins, pile as many as possible in the lower half of the hatch, and fill the rest with robots. Überclocker was attached to the rear left headrest the whole trip, using a spare alternator belt looped around it as a retaining strap, while every other bot was arranged creatively besides it.

This time, I stuck to my guns and just kept going on I-81 instead of even remotely thinking of touching the east coast again. Much better time was made – pretty much 20 hours door-to-door. Travelling during the daytime meant a longer sight distance, and consequently, we went faster. It’s been well-proven through the past few thousand miles of road trips that Mikuvan does well either at 65mph or less… or at 75+mph, where the engine is operating in its powerband in 4th gear… guess which half was used more often?

Well, when we could manage anyway. Summer is construction season all-around, and starting from Connecticut onwards south, there was construction and construction slowdowns and delays in literally every state.

After taking most of Wednesday morning and early afternoon to recuperate, we hit up the Invention Studio again, basically the robots & cosplay forward operating base of this whole trip. I began the final assembly of Pop Quiz, which was started the weekend before departure.  I had already done most of the work, so it was literally just throwing the package together. Pictured is the final arrangement of the components before the top was closed up.

I was originally planning on running 14.8 volts with the two 2S 500mAh packs, but some tachometry on the old motor showed me that it was basically 1000 rpm/V. I decided immediately to drop back to 7.4V and 1Ah – kind of a ridiculous amount of battery for a 1lb bot, but it would keep the weapon motor at a sane speed/load and also not make the 6V-rated Pololu drive motors too unhappy.

The batteries are wired in hard-parallel, so if I ever wanted to charge this pack properly, I’d need a two-parallel 2S battery splitter like this.

The two Vextrollers are de-cased and stacked on top of each other using clear heat shrink tubing for insulation. Stuffed right next to it is the 12 amp brushless ESC, which is hardwired next to the Integrated Fingertech Switch.

The Hobbyking 6 channel RX is also de-cased and sits up front, wrapped in electrical tape a few times since I didn’t pack clear shrink big enough. The pins are all removed, trimmed flush with the board except the pins I needed, and tiny 26 gauge signal wires soldered to the remaining stubs. Everything is according to the initial CAD models!

Dense and unserviceable? Yes, definitely, but so are iPhones and I like to think PQ is the iPhone of antweights so………

All packaged up with the new titanium top plate! 15.3 ounces – good enough. It probably weighs 15.300008 ounces up north anyway, so I still qualify for Motorama 2015.

Pop Quiz’s ‘press shot’. Notice the missing forward left corner – by this time, it already ate itself once when I was testing against a scrapped 1lb bot frame. I had ground a radius onto the underside of the blade’s leading edge to prevent this, but on one side of the blade, it just barely didn’t go far enough! That was remedied quickly.

The shorter blade meant that even when it hit its own corner, it didn’t fly away or flip. I in fact didn’t even notice it as an independent event – only after picking the bot up when enough was enough.

Being constructed alongside the antweight work was the latest version of the animatronic RWBY Crescent Rose being built by Cynthia of Cynaesthetics. I’ll let her explain the details, but this was the ‘black project’ that kept me busy over the week/end before we left. I was employed as a CAD mule since I was much faster at using Autodesk Inventor, so I pounded out the design she handed me over the course of probably Wednesday through Saturday.

The crown jewel of this design is probably the red gear-thing on the right. It’s nifty enough to warrant its own entire post. Shown below is revision 1:

It’s a one-shot 3D printed 7:1 compound planetary gear with input and output roller bearings that translates a roughly 16″ circumferential travel (so think 16″ of rope being pulled around it) into a roughly 85 degree rotation of one of the ring gears. The idea was to mechanically synchronize the deploy, though it ended up not quite working because of the difficulty of keeping the two sides synchronized.

There was a great chance that it wouldn’t work at all if I didn’t get the clearances exactly right, such that the multiple solid bodies got fused into one… but they ended up being correct for version 3. It was one-shot printed on the Dimension 1200ES machine in the shop.

Once again, I hosted a few Maker track panels and participated in others. This year’s roster was Maker Resources (my ’2.00gokart for the masses’ panel), Electric Vehicles, and a new one on Rapid Prototyping Cosplay, hosted with Jamison and Chris Lee, in which we teach the audience how to abuse waterjets. This year, we were smart and stuff, so all the panels are kept on the cloud! Links will be presented at the end section.

Above is my Maker Resources introduction. Yeah, it was about that productive.

Doing some last touch-up on Pad Thai before the Robot Microbattles 1lb and 3lb event. The front armor was too low, causing the front to drag and affecting the bot’s traction.

A clean shot of Pad Thai Doodle Ninja before the event. It only required lifter repair from last year, and replacement of some of the spring steel armor.

A picture of Pop Quiz’s first and only match. The bot seemed to work fine on the smooth Invention Studio indoor floor, but the arena floor was a whole ‘nother story. The bot has maybe 0.025″ of ground clearance on a good day. What does that mean? It could barely move in the arena!

This wouldn’t have been so bad if it were not for the fact that Pop Quiz’s weapon motor was built in 2008. Like, I went and found the blog post that described its construction. This predates even LOLioKart. Whatever I did back then was clearly not up to the bots of today, with the amount of power I’m now running through it. For example, the central shaft of the motor is a small shoulder screw with #8-32 threads, which pretty much stripped instantly on the first big hit, shown above, with “Trash Boat”. This left the weapon motor disabled, so after that, it was just a matter of finding the right floor gouge to get stuck on.

Well, shit. The rest of the bot works great (minus the paper thin ground clearance), so Pop Quiz is going to get a re-engineered motor and a few layers of heat shrink tubing over those wheels!

Due to timing constraints, the ants and beetles were forced into single elimination (again), so PQ left the event 0-1.

Pad Thai went longer in the tournament with Cynthia driving, defeating “Green Reaper” and “Trash Boat” (to whom Pop Quiz lost), ultimately reaching the semifinal where it lost to Jamison’s DDT. The spring steel armor fended off DDT reasonably well, but it was still filled with gouges at the end.

Video of this match, from Near Chaos Robotics.

Besides the front and side armor, DDT managed to get a good shot off at the unprotected rear, which cracked off a portion of the motor mount and sliced up the rear left wheel. The broken O-rings jammed into the rest of the drive and caused one side of the bot to stop working. Luckily, the motor wasn’t damaged!

Pad Thai went 2-1 this time.

Oh god, it’s Monday. It’s the big show. It’s my yearly measure of worth, made worse by the fact that this would be the 10th year since I won a championship at Dragon Con first! No pressure at all, breh. (I won the 12lb class at D*C2004 with Test Bot v3)

No changes at all were made to the big bots at the Invention Studio, since all of the work relevant to them was done before departure.

My Hyperion 1420i charger died mysteriously during Microbattles, so I put out a call to the Robot Battles e-mail list and Facebook page asking if anyone had a charger (or bench power supply) that could charge up to 7S lithium packs (about 28 volts). Dale (of Homemade Robots) brought a 30v adjustable power supply that I ran with during the whole event.

Sadly, I did not run into Dale in either weight class, so we couldn’t do a “10 year band reunion” in the finals….

Test Bot was also at this event, and frankly, it’s never looked better.

Wait, what!? Yes, that’s the old frame and running gear of Test Bot 4.5. I sold it to Mike Jeffries of Near Chaos Robotics about a year and a half ago, and his crew has revived it into Dolos. They upgraded it with slightly larger wheels (one of the causes of its downfall at D*C events, since by that point I’d optimized TB for smooth arenas), a wedge that formerly belonged to Apollyon, and a “bot hook” weapon.

I didn’t get to fight 12 O’Clocker against it, however, since it lost to Dale’s Omega Force.

Setting up 12 O’Clocker for its first match against Served Cold…

During its last match with Tetanus Shot, 12 O’Clocker lost one drive side completely. I thought it was a solder joint or stripped gear in the custom Harbor Freight mounts – Tetanus Shot is an extremely solid bot, so metal on metal collisions are going to have much more pronounced effects.  As it turns out, it was way worse than that:

The motor just straight up cracked out of its mounting holes! Looks like the bottom of the motor mounting screw holes might have been a little too thin. I have spares of the gearcases from last year….

…but of course forgot to bring them for this year.

Well, okay then.

Returning to a classic strategy, I decided to install a zip tie ratchet on the right side. This is a cut zip tie that sticks into the sprocket’s path, so in one direction it gets sucked into the chain and locks that side up. In the other direction, it is pushed away and the side moves (relatively) freely.

I used this method a few times in years past with Clockers of Lesser Drivetrain Reliability to great success, for tenuous definitions of great. The bot could move forward, in a wide circle, and then pivot about one side in reverse. 12 O’Clocker is still a relatively formidable opponent even in this limping mode, this time exemplified by how many times I still managed to get Tetanus Shot after the installation of the ratchet…

12 O’Clocker made is 1 and 1, winning against Served Cold and losing to Tetanus Shot. By the 12lb Rumble, it had also cracked the motor off the other side, so I started and stayed mostly in the center of it to smack as many people as possible while avoiding the edges. A drive-disabled 12 O’Clocker somehow managed a one in a thousand alignment with Omega Force, and I literally threw it overhead off the stage.

I edited together all the video I had of 12 O’Clocker and have it uploaded onto my Youtube channel. Here it is for convenience;

(This is in addition to the Near Chaos 12lber playlist).


Überclocker was the big hit of the show this time, going straight through with no losses and winning the 30lb championship. There’s nothing wrong with the bot right now – I can turn it around to Motorama 2015 tomorrow. The Banebots wheel swap proved to be an extremely good idea – Clocker had a traction advantage that was clearly noticeable in its matches with Nyx, against which I’ve always been neck and neck in pushing ability.

I also entered Clocker in the 30lb rumble, with some… additions… to epicly hilariously results. 90% of this event to me is a chance to let loose and be silly on stage with robots, so we took the spare pool noodles that we brought for safety covers – Jamison’s Bug Loves Robot and Überclocker both rank pretty high for pointy ends on bots – and straight up taped them to the bots for added entertainment.

I edited together all of its matches here. Near Chaos has a much better view of the bedlam that was the 30lb rumble.

Clocker’s performance was nothing short of stellar, and I’m glad that it finally works reliably. I don’t anticipate making any performance upgrades or changes to the bot at the moment. The top clamp arm actuator still has a bit of a habit of coming apart – it didn’t at this event, but it was looking close by the end, so I’d like to actually drive some screws into its mounting brackets before Motorama.

12 O’Clocker is a different story. Besides the whole motors-breaking-off issue, which is a design problem with the gearbox, it needs an aspect ratio more similar to Überclocker to be more effective. Right now, it’s dopey and cute looking with its short wheelbase and tall frame, but it translates into poor lifting performance since the center of gravity has less leverage. It’s more likely to faceplant than lift (but that makes it cuter and dopier!). But again, I’m not sure if I’d change this, since the point of it was to be silly and fast – two things it’s good at, at least!

I ran out of time this DC season due to helping with the RWBY weapon that I couldn’t really do justice for Pop Quiz and Pad Thai. Pop Quiz’s concept is sound, but that motor needs to be updated to 2014 standards! It’s been a while since I’ve made a motor, so I’m kind of itching to do it now… Oh, and throw a few layers of heat shrink onto the wheels. Pad Thai suffered plenty of body damage this time around, but none to the lifter – it was actually kept down most of the time  anyway.

The Con Elsewhere

Once you go to one Dragon Con, you kind of get the idea: it has neither rhyme nor reason, nor a theme such as comic books, Warhammer, or indie video games. It’s ALL of it. As a result, I’m always on the lookout for new and innovative crossovers and takes on media franchises. Seeing a group of Iron Men gets old pretty quickly, for example, but nothing really prepares you for…

Iron Totoro. The picture doesn’t do justice as to how huge it was, which was easily 3 people wide. There was a hotel security staff just off to the left escorting it through the (very tightly packed) Marriott hotel.

Interactive costumes are another cool feature of a convention where you’re not expected to stay within a certain industry or franchise. Here is Mr. Fingertech Robotics himself, Kurt, with hand-mounted reed switches that could sense high fives. The large LED screen displayed the current count (yes, double high fives work!), and the LED strips on his vest would change color depending on how many high fives were accumulated in a certain span of time.

I forgot the exact count, but he was well over 10,000 by the end of the weekend, and it was a huge hit just walking through the hallways.

Cynthia’s mechanical scythe posing next to a more artistically complete but non-mechanical one. RWBY is stll a series which is gaining traction, so not too many people recognized it immediately, but the mechanical deploy caught quite a few eyes. It was presented at the Rapid Prototyping panel (which also featured Jamison’s big hammer and a few other things) to great fanfare. Version 3 ought to be even more exciting…

So that’s Dragon Con 2014 in a few pictures! I’ve already made plans for next year, including changes to the panel format and possibly more collab panels. First, I’ve always thought that Dragon Con panels were supposed to be 1.5 hours long, since at other cons the panels are scheduled in 1 hour blocks. As it turns out, it’s supposed to be 1 hour of panel and halfn a hour of room clear/reset. What?! I totally only found this out when Val, the Robotics & Maker track director, had to toss everyone out of the panels I ran or participated in…. because I thought the content was going to fill about an hour and 20 minutes or so. Whoops.

We hustled out of Atlanta under the cover of early morning darkness, and followed the same I-81 route back.

Panel Resources

This year, I did a smart person thing (only you guys say I’m smart, I never said anything to the effect…) and made/kept the presentations online. So here they are:

  • Maker Resources 2014: Updated with new content, vendors, and internet memes!
  • Rapid Prototyping 2014: In collab with Chris Lee and Jamison Go. If the subset of people who 1. read this blog and 2. have pictures or video, I’d appreciate it greatly if you sent it our way. I think this panel was highly successful.
  • Electric Vehicles 2014: In collab with Adam Bercu. This was primarily a picture show since we actually did a panel thing and talked the whole time.

Operation: I FEEL GASSY

Well, this sure looks familiar.

Nope, it’s not a repost!

Around 9 in the morning on Tuesday, near the VA/NC border (by a little town named Lambsburg, as I found out), I stopped to pick up a full tank of gas from a Loves Travel Stop. Roughly 1 hour later, south of Roanoke, was when we noticed the first hints of power loss, but we assigned it to the fact that the region was mountainous. Shortly after Roanoke, in the span of less than half an hour, I went from keeping up with highway speed in the right lane to crawling at 25mph on the shoulder.

Realizing this was patently unsafe, I pulled off near Natural Bridge, VA onto U.S. Route 11, which was a much slower local road, while we tried to formulate a battle plan. At this point was when I was beginning to think that the problem was with the fuel system. The symptoms were:

  • Lack of power at mid and higher throttle. The engine could idle and run at low speeds and loads just fine, but as soon as I gave it more gas, it began sputtering and losing RPM. By itself, this could have indicated a problem with a clogged or restricted exhaust or intake.
  • I could rev the engine in neutral freely if I depressed the throttle gently; but a sudden mash of the pedal would cause it to sputter. Something load-dependent was the issue.
  • More surprisingly, though, it was inconsistent. During the various start-stop cycles at red lights and when the engine was off, the restriction would seemingly go away for a short time, but then almost immediately return afterwards.
  • When it was away, I could drive and accelerate normally. Something was moving or shifting, possibly by gravity/engine suction or pressure, or perhaps temperature, into place.

We went on U.S. 11 until Lexington, VA, where we stopped for lunch at a Taco Bell and waited for the engine bay to cool off a bit so I could possible look inside. I picked up half a tank of gas from an Exxon station, where I also checked the air intake and filter in case a squirrel actually got lodged in there or something. You  never know.

It seemed to behave normally right after the fillup, so at this point I was highly suspecting some kind of gunk or contamination in the fuel. I milked what leftover power it had for several more miles until the problem came back again, halfway to Staunton, VA

Realizing we were never going to make it home if this kept up, we stopped at a rural gas station halfway between Lexington and Staunton (in a town called Raphine)  where Adam and I dove under to extract the catalytic converter (after half an hour inside a Burger King waiting for it to cool) and to inspect it. This resulted in the following hilarious picture:

Let the shipping begin

After taking about 20 minutes to drop the catalytic converter, we found there was absolutely nothing wrong with it or with the pipe downstream. At this point, I was pretty damned sure it was fuel-system related.

We decided to play it safe and try to ask for an ‘expert opinion’, which involved a bit of calling around seeing if there were area mechanics we could limp to. We visited two – one was right across the highway, was actually a truck and RV repair shop, and run by a very friendly and wise old guy whose name we didn’t catch, but whose business was named Cash’s so I’m going to call him Mr. Cash, because that shit’s cash.

After taking a test drive, he agreed with me that it was most likely fuel related, but seeing as how this was already late afternoon and likely nobody in the area would have the needed parts, could only offer me a bottle of fuel system cleaner and some good luck. Mr. Cash recommended we visit another shop around the corner, King’s (which I assume is run by Mr. King), to get a second opinion.

Mr. King himself was welcoming but busy, but the mechanic he foisted me off to was absolutely convinced it was a catalytic converter problem despite me telling him already what we’ve taken apart and checked. I’ll give the guy some credit – they were busy when we walked in, and we were likely not going to stay and pay them to do service, so I can’t imagine I was very high on their priorities list. We left after deciding our welcome was outstayed. Certainly, if you walk into the IDC while I’m busy putting out student go-kart fires (maybe literally, mind you…) and started asking laser cutter questions, I would have responded similarly.

At this point, I decided to see if the ECU was possibly outputting any codes, since 1989 is just new enough that some sort of electronic diagnostic was mandatory. One problem: I didn’t have the diagnostic sheet from the service manual that told me what the blinking voltmeter needle did.

Solution: I found it on my own website – posted from last year, an exact snapshot of the page I needed. See, kids? This is why you blog everything, even if you don’t think it’s important!

I continued north on I-64/81 to wait for the problem to return while Adam carefully stared at the voltmeter. Sciencekart is funny, but I wasn’t about to try and stare at the voltmeter while driving for real. However, even though the problem returned, and I was reduced to shoulder-crawling again north of Staunton, VA, the ECU didn’t throw any errors.

Really? I figured it should at least return “Fuel Pump” or something, but nothing. Modern ECUs can tell you if the fuel-air mixture was even a little bit out of expectation, but the diagnostic system on Mikuvan is not sophisticated enough for that.

I coasted into Weyers Cave, VA – between Staunton and Harrisonburg – and we limped to the Shenandoah Valley Regional airport. At this point, Cynthia and Jamison needed a way to get home because they have things like real lives and jobs. They picked up a rental car from the airport, since there were no direct flights to Boston from here.

The battle plan was prepared. Adam and I would crash overnight with his friend in Richmond, VA, then return in the morning with a U-Haul and trailer. From there, we’d basically be running the original Operation: MIKUVAN again!

In what I realize must have looked like a broad daylight car theft, we pulled into the airport parking lot with the truck and trailer and pulled back out with Mikuvan loaded in under 10 minutes (Keep in mind it was still capable of moving under its own power, just for not too long, so I just drove onto the trailer). If we tried this in Boston, we’d been surrounded by black trucks and assault rifles in a few seconds, but they seem to be more chill out here.

The destination was a shopping center south of Harrisonburg, VA, with multiple big box home improvement and auto parts stores in the area.

And so, for the second time in two years, I found myself in a town with “Harris” in the name, under a U-haul trailer, in the parking lot of a big-box store, fixing a van.

The plan of action was to remove the fuel filter and then connect it up backwards, then use the fuel pump to empty the whole tank through the backwards filter. Ideally, this would knock out and wash enough particulates for us to gently nurse it back home, still 12 hours away. Pictured above is the first shot of fuel from the filter. Delicious.

Every few gallons, we’d switch the 10 gallon fuel can for a water bottle and inspect the fuel for clarity. Even at the end of 4 shots, there were still tiny black flakes and bits coming out of it. I know this is probably the past 10,000 miles of deposits, but regardless, it was rather surprising to see how contaminated and full of other substances gasoline, allegedly a highly refined product, can be even in 2014. At least, I’ve never dealt in any way with “bad gas” on any vehicle… but perhaps it’s because I’ve not personally put 10K+ miles on any one vehicle before now.

We dropped the bad fuel off at an auto shop, fully fueled Mikuvan with some Shell premium gas (I was paranoid okay?!) and went on our way. The trip back to Richmond, about 2 hours, would be the test – if I could manage this fine, then it should be okay for the rest of the trip: all of the instances of the fuel restriction would appear with 15-20 minutes of driving each time. I took the lead on the return, with Adam following in the truck and trailer. If the problem returned, I would slow down, pull behind him, and just Grand Theft Auto it onto the trailer.

Around 9:30PM on Wednesday, we rolled out of Richmond and headed north on I-95. I drove at a relatively constant speed and throttle, trying to maintain 70mph, until north of York, PA, upon which Adam took over and got to White Plains, NY on I-287.

I think I should drive with a clogged fuel filter more often, since I got the best mileage ever during that leg. Problems started returning around White Plains, more mildly but still noticeable, so we decided to play it safe and took CT-15 northward instead of I-95.

Here’s the story in a Google map.

CT-15 was a scenic but rather chaotic (being morning rush hour in the NYC metro area and all…) drive. We discovered new Tesla superchargers:

In the span of time we were taking a break at this station – like 20 minutes at most, three Teslas rolled in and out.

Hey, is this still under warranty?

An hour south of Hartford, I got the idea of calling area Mitsubishi dealerships to see if anyone had a fuel filter for an obscure model they likely never personally sold. I’m not sure why I thought this was necessary by this point, since Hartford was but a hop, skip, and faceplant away from Boston, but I was kind of tired and delirious anyway.

Hartford Mitsubishi (& Cadillac & Maserati) was extremely helpful – their parts guy was on the phone with me for 10 minutes trying different models to see if any parts cross correlated. I know for sure the same style filter is used on late 80s Monteros and Galants, as well as shared with the Dodge compact pickups of the same era…. but all of those are virtually extinct by now too, so no luck with those specific models. He ended up finding a ‘universal’ style that fit across model lines. I’ll take one.

We decided not to do the filter swap just two hours outside the finish, so the rest of the trip was spent hovering in the right lane on I-84 and I-90 to very little drama. I made it back onto campus around 1pm on Thursday.

analysis and recourse

I was not expecting “bad gas” to be still a thing in 2014 – sure, I’ve heard stories from other people, but come on, this is the future where we live in the cloud and download our food and movies alike through 4G LTE. I was also under the impression that fuel filters, like any filter, will show symptoms gradually, and not be fine on one hill, but completely go to shit by the next. The filter in question was installed after I got the engine working again in May 2013, and it’s been completely trouble-free for all of the trips since then. It was even trouble-free for 550 miles of blasting in and around Atlanta, where I was regularly pushing 80mph. It was trouble free for the first six hours of the trip, which featured much of the same hammer-dropping. It’s difficult for me to not mentally assign blame to the Love’s station, since I picked up a full tank of fuel from them and then the engine totally went to hell within an hour and a half.

It also seems getting recompense from a gas station is quite difficult.

First, a bunch of people would have to complain AND specifically point out they were the cause. Who knows, maybe the 6 other cars at the station with me when we refueled in Lambsburg also had issues some time down the line, or could have them very shortly after a few hundred more miles, but their owners will just chalk it up to the 5000 mile oil change interval running out and take it into their mechanic, never noticing the cause or caring about the final invoice.

Second, even if they were also broken down somewhere, normal people wouldn’t do what we did: we didn’t do a single thing “the legit way”. Instead of calling for a tow, calling my insurance company to find an authorized shop, getting said shop to perform all the diagnostic work we did, and paying for the replacement part in labor, we slum-fixed it ourselves outside of The System. The “tow” was a U-haul, the “shop” was the parking lot of the Harrisonburg Home Depot. I guess I did end up buying an official dealer sourced part? What this means as a whole is I don’t have an ‘official’ paper trail to back all of these claims up.

I called Love’s and they looked into the store in question, but of course got back to me with “Sorry, nobody else complained and our tests showed our fuel is clean, so we can’t help you”. Of course nobody else complained and your fuel is clean – that’s what your job is to tell me, so I ain’t even mad.  If I were to file a lawsuit, then I’d be potentially out a few thousand dollars and many months of staying on top of it, while swimming upstream against “well, nobody else complained, so what the hell is wrong with your car then?”

Oh well – unless one of you have a better idea, I’m just going to cut my losses at a few hundred bucks, pay off Jamison and Cynthia for their rental car expenses, and file this one under “Don’t Trust the System”.

I took care of the fuel filter in an hour outside of MITERS last week, and based on my (admittedly relatively short) trips around the Boston outer regions, there’s been no problems at all. Maybe it’s time to hit Vermont again for another Ford Fusion battery just to test it on the road for more than an hour at a time, because the New York Maker Faire is next week and I’d certainly like to avoid stranding 5 random freshmen on the side of the road in Connecticut.

Speaking of which, stay tuned for the work on that so far – Chibi-Mikuvan needs some pretty mission critical repairs! Time to switch vans once more….