And We’re Back In Business! An Equals Zero Return to Form, or So I Hope

After much ado about a whole lot of things, this site is now at least in a working state where all my information is accessible… even if it doesn’t look quite all aligned, all my plugins are missing, things might not be in the right place, and so on. This website is still a van, just a newer one.

By the way, I noticed all of your 63 emails asking what happened to the site! Hell, I didn’t know people still had the patience to read blog posts in this era of Youtube subscriptions and TikTok follows. A lot of valuable info resides here, so I definitely had the incentive to get everything running again, just a matter of willpower (This will be a theme for this post…)

So I had to relearn a lot of “Internet Stuff” since the last real revamp of the site from 2009. The biggest challenge ended up being re-importing the database which actually dates back to 2007 (the earliest posts on this site now), which is why this site was a potato dealership for a few days.

First, I had trouble importing the 200-something megabyte database dump, and it took several retries in different browsers and different times of day. Not only that, but fancy hax0r Charles of 2006 named all of his WordPress databases fancy names, so the new WordPress install didn’t know ass from teakettle. Next, because all of my domains are now unified on one hosting account (Equals Zero Designs and Marconi Motors), I had to connect all the subdomain dots. I’ve also never seen cPanel in my life, despite it being available back then also – I did pretty much all of the setup and back end work through FTP and phpMyAdmin directly, so there was just button clicking to learn.

I’m still going from theme to theme, so the immediate appearance of this site might change in the next few days. I’m trying to keep it a dark and easily browsable theme. The one I have as of 1/11 also has a banner image like the previous rendition, but I haven’t reuploaded those yet. It also has a bad habit of displaying the past few posts all together making the front page infinitely long, and I have yet to find the setting for breaking it up into previews only! I also still need to get used to the visual editor that WordPress ships with now – I’m not a fan of it so far, since it’s more of a walled garden experience and it’s a little harder to use my historic file and photo structure. But alas, welcome to the Internet of Today.

Anyways, after all of my makeshift database adminning, here we are again – I’m sure I’ll make a post like this again in another 11-14 years. All of the old posts should be there, but I have not (and will not) check them for layout or importation mishaps, as I consider those pretty much static archives at this point. Look, my van posts are here for my own reference and that’s all that matters.

So! Onto the new content. Besides now the Summer of Ven and Overhaul 3 Design & Build series posts I need to backfill, there’s some new stuff in the pipeline because I will somehow always find new vans to work on. I’ll just add this to the “List of Things I Still Have To Blog About”. Here’s the short story of, I dunno, since late September or thereabouts.

dromes

You know what? I miss having my own drone. I keep working on everyone else’s drones, but I haven’t had one truly of my own since all the way back in the Tinycopter days. Back then, I had the audacity to code my own flight controller, but these days most of my work is integrating Arducopter and PX4, flight controller firmwares that are….. less haphazardly put together. With safety and what not. Somehow I’ve built dromes for many entities since then, including KIWI of course, and my current place of employ, but what measure is a drome engineer if he doesn’t have any of his own?

And so I went to pray at the Altar of Lord Bezos and visited the Oracle of Jack Ma. You know the adage “Buy right, or buy twice”? My take it on it is “Why buy right when you can buy very specifically wrong and buy a lot?” It’s like getting a 0 on the SAT, since you have to answer every question incorrectly and can’t just shotgun it at random. You have to specifically know what not to buy, so your pile of parts has a minimal chance of cooperating, maximizing your chances of failure but forcing an exploration of the tradespace into places no sensible engineer would touch. Long time readers will understand this is my M.O. for everything – I know what to do, so why do it when you can try something dumb since nothing matters and we’re all going to hell anyway?

As such, crafted out of a tote of deprecated KIWI parts and my robot electronics bins, helped along by some deconstructed Seg-baby packs dating back to 2015 (RIP seg-thing), and with the blessing of the lowest-priced drone parts AliExpress could provide, I present Trashcopter:

The least fine drome that money can maybe buy!

This thing is…. a drone. There’s nothing special about it. I just wanted a beater drone to fly when I felt like it. It works fine, I went through the usual setup and tuning and fine craftsmanship associated with putting a kit drone together, and it is still in one piece as of this writing. It can fly autonomous missions, take off and land itself, follow terrains and avoid (large, visible to IR light) objects, and do a barrel roll in mid-air once. (Okay, it was for a brief couple of hours not in one piece). It ain’t a Skydio II, it’s basically a potato someone threw very hard, very controllably.

I explored the sub-basement steam room of drone parts on this build by purposefully trying to sort by price lowest and free shipping. What I found is an entire under the fallen log ecosystem of used drone parts, selling motors and ESCs and subassemblies for $1-$5 apiece. As expected, I now own like 50 motors pulled from XiaoMi drones, and the ESCs that go with them.

The frame is the cheapest, most terrible DJI FlameWheel knockoff I could find. The finish is so ratchet that I had to deburr everything before using it (and correct some of the heatset insert work, and open up some of the PCB chassis plate holes…), but I also now have 6 frames worth of questionably molded nylon arms. I mean you should see the sink marks on these arms. What I’m saying is, I can build as many terrible drones as I feel like now, for less than the cost of getting parts stateside for one single functional unit.

I furthermore went shopping for the crappiest radio I could find – the “Can I find something even cheaper than the 4 channel HobbyKing 2.4Ghz radio?” and that result is sitting next to it, the “MicroZone MC6” series. Like Trashcopter, it is “An Radio”. It has all the right shapes and tchotchkes in the right places, and Doesn’t Not Work. Hell, it’s even 6 (secretly 7) channels.

The build report for this guy will expound more on the process I took to get the parts, exploring some of the parts themselves including taking apart the cheapo radio, and just generally show the setup of a modern-day Pixhawk and Arducopter based multirotor from end to end for posterity.

But that’s not all.

I hinted in the original Robot Trap House post that I had unfinished business in the sector of Very Lörge Dromes that I still wanted to explore and develop, but which wasn’t relevant to the KIWI business needs at the time. One of these in particular is my strong belief that the “One motor per prop” multirotor architecture doesn’t really scale to large, flying van levels. You CAN make it work, and many companies have, often at great expense of either buying or developing cutting-edge custom motors and materials for airframe and propellers.

That clashed with my general philosophy of “Don’t custom unless you want to make a project out of the custom thing”, and consequently the direction of KIWI, where every aerospace engineer we tried to hire dropped to the floor and foamed at the mouth as soon as they witnessed our extremely BattleBot-like building approach: COTS and easy sheet metal and extrusion weldments.

The magic sauce to me when it comes to electromechanical hardware startups lies not in exotic in-house cooked and served materials and genetically-evolved one-piece structures, but getting out into the field with a working, reliable robot in front of the customer and a practiced means of getting there many times. I’m a bad CTO – I don’t like technology.

So how do I aim to demonstrate an alternative? Well, I reached just a little bit back into history, like a few years, into the domain of the Variable-Pitch Multirotor. Also called “Heliquads” or “Collective Pitch Multirotors”, they trade a little bit of mechanical complexity (The collective-only rotor head) for, in my soon-qualifiable opinion, a broad increase in the maneuverability space and control bandwidth.

My still-in-progress entry into this design tradespace will be what I affectionately named “Wigglecopter“:

Yes, that is my dinner table. No, nobody ever comes over.

In short, for a minor increase in thrust for vehicle attitude correction, a conventional multirotor has to spin up and down the propellers. Your torque to inertia proportions really, REALLY matter. Everything needs to be as light as have as little MOI as possible, and your motors need to be as torque dense as possible, to get a high enough control loop bandwidth to keep the vehicle stable.

Conversely a VPM/CPM can issue corrections by adjusting the pitch of its propellers. Single-degree movements will induce variations in thrust corresponding to possibly hundreds of RPM of motor speed. There is a lot of literature in the advanced aerospace controls scene pertaining to these, and I’ll collate and dive into a few papers I’ve taken a liking to in its build reports.

I actually tried to buy one of these, as they were sold for a while in the Early Teenies by a few hobby vendors with models such as the HobbyKing Reaper 450, WLToys V383, and the CJY Stinger 500. They’ve pretty much all died out, so instead of hunting around for used or new-old ones, I decided the mechanical problem was simple enough to just put together and get the point across.

If you look closely, Wigglecopter is just made from the same pile of garbage that Trashcopter emerged from. I just ordered a few DJI F450 quad frame cards from Amazon to make it a quad, and had to gently re-engineer the motors to accept the collective pitch mechanism and propellers. I’m going to put some more legitimate gear into this thing from the flight control and sensing side, as I’d like for it to be a development platform.

Notice that it still does have four independent motors? Well, you can still do that with a CPM, provided you now keep the motor speed constant so your thrust output is not a multivariate surface of sagging motor speed and flexible propeller blades…. just one of them, as much as possible. I decided trying to make a serpentine belt drive was just going too hard the first time out, and will just bypass this issue with inertia rings pressed onto the motors if need be, and with the ESCs set to speed govern. We’ll see what it does!

My LTE plan for Wigglecopter is to finish and validate it, then start getting larger and larger. I’m going to need to modify the firmware a little for myself, as I would like to make a collective-pitch Hex and Octo down the line. Wigglecopter itself should be all done and ready this spring, and its bloodline is completely unplanned except for daydreaming of lifting Kei vans in the air.

Overhaul 1 Restoration

A very exciting new development in my life is that I now have Overhaul 1 in my possession again. In November, I made a speedrun up to Boston to collect the remainder of the several hundred pounds of life I left in the ol’ vape shop. At this point, I was able to extract Overhaul 1 from its dormant state. For the past few weeks, I’ve been going through it (there’s not much, mind you) and getting it back in running order.

There’s no intention of putting it back in battle except a few token matches with Sadbot, Overhaul 2, and Overhaul 3. Yes, somehow I will soon have four operational heavyweight Battlebots. It’s like vans, they just keep spawning. Everyone I know agrees that it would be incredibly funny if Overhaul 3 loses to every preceding generation of Overhaul. I mean, it’s never won against Sadbot, so this is a distinct possibility.

I designed up a retrofit for the drive motors on the shuffle pods, implementing a design idea we should have done but didn’t have the time to execute. Right now, the electronics bay is a small plastic tote bungee-corded to the frame, but I’m going to design up an integrated battery case and electronics deck so I can close it up. It won’t be as (unnecessarily) fast as it was before, as as a bot I’ll probably reserve for demos and showings only, doesn’t need to be anyway.

I also had to straighten out a lot of bent parts. You know what – my adventures in Big Chuck’s Auto Body came home to roost. There were a lot of fun rednecky processes involved in straightening the welded unibody-ish frame and the pointy plow.

So, hopefully Overhaul 1’s “Rebuild Report” will just read like one of my many other hundreds of “I fixed this stupid thing that broke because I was stupid to begin with” titles.

all of the ven are piles

As of right now, my entire treasure fleet is in disarray. While everybody runs and drives, I wouldn’t characterize any as “particularly competent”. It’s winter, and they’re not in danger of being towed or fined for the first time, so in a way this little return to form with me building robots again has been at the expense of the ven.

Why are they so derelict? Well, I think in part it’s due to me continually throwing them up and down mountains.

Now that I’m only about 3 to 4 hours from the very vannable mountain roads of northern Georgia and the North Carolina/Tennessee border, it means I go…

I’m the width of the road, I’m the width of the road, I’m the wiGET BACK IN YOUR LANE NOW

…all…

Look at that inside-front liftoff. Rear sway bar time?

…the time

I do think at least once every month so far I’ve ended up somewhere in the area with vehicles nobody expects to ever witness in general, much less on a mountain. I’ve gone with groups (typically composed of SPROTS CARS) and when I damn felt like it.

The downside is obviously that the exercise is very strenuous for tired old ven. Here’s the lockout tag captions for everything as it stands:

Mikuvan

  • The entire exhaust path from the axle-clearing bend back fell off in late May when I was on the Tail of the Dragon. Yes, fell off. As in the person behind me had to dodge it. Straight-piping 3 hours home was hilarious, albeit dissatisfactory for hearing longevity. I replaced the exhaust in my first fully welded/fabricated custom exhaust job in June. In fact, look at it ratchet strapped to the roof rack above, as a victory trophy.
  • Complete front brake caliper and rotor replacement in November – it’s had one mildly dragging caliper for a while, and it was tolerable until some amount of smashing on the mountain caused it to seize even more.
  • Now it’s slowly leaking brake fluid from the master cylinder/booster assembly – while it stops fine, the fluid loss is gradual and both faster than I’m comfortable with and want to deal with the mess.
  • The power steering pump is now making absolutely terrific sounds and leaking at the shaft seal, so it’ll be on the chopping block for replacement.
  • There is a cable harness that the cruise control computer intercepts the transmission overdrive solenoid with which has failing pins. This has manifested in sporadic loss of 4th gear, meaning I’m either going 55mph tops or absolutely revving it flat out to hit 70. A kick or tug on the harness will often resolve it – I’ve tried various methods of biasing and restraining the connector pigtail over the past year or so, but outright repair/bypass is now a necessity because it’s getting too annoying.

Vantruck

  • Developed either a misfire or bad exhaust leak from the right cylinder bank, so while it will drive fine, it sure sounds like an old rattly diesel when it isn’t one (yet…). I’ll need to do a full heuristic debug before commenting on it more – it got worse lately as the weather cooled down.
  • It’s recently began emitting blue smoke out the exhaust intermittently. I’d attribute this solely to something like worn/crispy valve stem seals or sticky piston rings, but what was more worrisome is that the oil pressure gauge began to not register pressure. Now, in this era of Ferd, the oil pressure gauge appears to be a fake one – really an on-off scenario. I haven’t correlated the two symptoms by physically measuring the oil pressure yet, and really cannot say I’ve paid enough attention to said pressure gauge in months past for it to even have been symptomatic of anything. It could be a coincidence. Either way, out of an abundance of caution, I haven’t been driving Vantruck around the past few weeks.
  • Rear drum brakes have something going on, probably just excessive wear. If I set the parking brake, the rear brakes will drag for a while after releasing them. If I brake in reverse, then drive and brake forward, there’s a palpable clunk as something with just a bit too much slop pops back into position. Sounds straightforward, just willpower-limited for dissection.

Spool Bus

  • It came with a diesel leak around the left bank of injectors – old and crispy return line fittings, and the cold weather has made it worse to the point where I’d prefer not to drive it. Less due to the fire hazard and more because it stanks of diesel, costs me money by leaking it out, and is rude to others for leaving dribbles on the road. Willpower-limited repair, as I have the fittings and hoses sitting in it right this minute.
  • Thrashing about the mountains has caused a power steering system leak. I haven’t dug into it to find out where from, but it’s actually not from the gearbox itself this time (a known failure mode of many a Ford truck), so it’s probably a stiff hose or loose fitting. In fact, I had to abandon a day on US Route 129 a few months ago because the power steering leak became dramatically worse all of a sudden, a small puddle per power cycle. Luckily, the system was filled with transmission fluid and I had a quart to keep topping it off on the trip home.

You notice it’s all turning and stopping related problems, more or less? Well, in order to not fly off the side of a mountain, it’s imperative that you be able to turn and slow down. Vans, while imperfect at this, can be coerced into doing so somewhat gracefully, but they’ll only put up with it for so long.

Oh, yeah, where’s Murdervan? Spoiler alert – I sold it back in September after shoring everything up nicely and writing a Facebook ad that, in light of current events might get me Investigated. It was sold locally in-town to someone who seemed enthusiastic and knowledgeable of old Ferd diesel trucks, and will join a small business fleet that does urban gardening and landscaping work. A very fitting end to its brief story with me, as it was always just too normal for my misfits. I’m sure I’ll see it around the city more!

So there’s also a lot of Ven to write up, besides the Summer of Ven series itself. I better get used to loving this keyboard and its probable timely successor once the keys start falling off.

Cute little robots

A few weeks ago, I was skulking around knick knack stores in the farthest reaches of Georgia (my latest habit, finally checking out all those antique and flea markets I keep blasting by on the way back and forth from the Smokies and Blue Ridge). A lot of these stores have vintage tools and hardware, which I enjoy perusing. However, at one of them, I found this little guy:

That, if you’re not familiar, is a Dr. Inferno Jr. Well, not really. It’s a Tomy Omnibot, a little robot toy of the 1980s that was probably pretty badass for its time, being programmable via cassette tape and all.

Needless to say, I made off with it because hey, it has some relation to BattleBots history as well as the history of programmable smart toys. It was in good physical condition, though the proprietors said they couldn’t locate the remote control at the time but would keep mining their stocks for it.

Without the OEM remote, it seems rather static based on my research, and so I decided to perform a unique restomod. I’d do a mechanical repair and restoration to get it in driveable first, but I had an element I wanted to add.

That is an old Futaba T4NL Conquest I got for free at some Swapfest at MIT many moons ago, and have just had sitting in one of my Electronics Mystery Abyss totes since. What better to control your 80s robot with than an 80s radio!

What you can’t see from the outside is the MicroZone MC6 transmitter that I organ-swapped into the T4NL. Yup, I done did it – a restomod of the transmitter with a modern day, albeit potato, 2.4G computer radio. This was a fun adventure, and I think I approached it in a unique (but harder) way than just tapping the PPM summation point and feeding it into a 2.4G radio module. I fully embedded the MC6 using the original Futaba gimbals, added the MC6 servo reverser switches to the back side, and wired in new switches to turn the 4 channel T4NL into a full fledged 7-channel radio.

And of course, this photo of my 80s robot that I drove around with my 80s R/C radio was taken at a car show I took my 80s van to. This, as I called it on the Facesphere, is #Radwoodbait for whenever those shows come back up.

I’d definitely love to write up the whole restomod of both the Omnibot and the Conquest T4NL radio, because it was just a fun distraction project over the holidays when everything was closed and I didn’t feel like going outside.

Remember, even while I’ve refrained from fixing this web-van (HEHEHE WEBVAN) up to post content, I’ve been taking my usual excessive amount of photos of every step or interesting happening. The content exists, I just have to find the willpower to write it up – and I hope finally having the damn site operational again will motivate it.

Also, I have so much to remember what I named “Potato”…starting with the title of this site. I’ll take care of it soon, I promise.

robots

Rememberance of the Summer of Ven: Introducing Murdervan and Spoolbus

One of the hallmarks of a relationship rebound is that you try to do all the things you couldn’t do before with your new one. That’s definitely true for me, as one of the principal reasons I decided to finally get out of the Boston area was due to the near impossibility of finding van-sized workspace. I got a taste of it last summer when I had Big Chuck’s Auto Body long enough to bang off the Vantruck resto, and it was why I was hell-bent on finding a place like the Robot Trap House that let me have a combined private work and storage space.

So what am I gonna do when going from single rented parking spots to an entire fenced in, forested yard that nobody can look at? Well, if the last post was any indication, collect horrible piles of machinery. I can assure you that Crabmower was far from the only thing I fetched this summer! With that, here’s a welcome to…

The Summer of Ven

Ven is the plural of van. Fight me.

The story begins really years back with the original purchase of Vantruck, which was mostly at the behest of someone I’d say is a “diesel bro” friend. I have a handful of said friends all over the country, who operate all sorts of old diesel trucks, vans, and the like while being software engineers, VR/AR enthusiasts, and roboticists. There’s something about these old, usually all-mechanical, diesel engines attached to overbuilt but maybe not well-built coachworks, that appeals to the technocratic futurist. Maybe being on the forefront of changing and evolving technology constantly makes one seek a foil in the antiquated but static. You can always push an update over the cloud, but once the crankshaft is forged, changing any aspects of its manifestation is really hard. Maybe that’s what draws me to buy “vintage” equipment, tools, and lawn mowers too – the yearly newest and shiniest offering from Jeff Bezos’ magic book of tricks will always be there if I need it, so I’m going to have some fun first and keep something time-tested around.

What I’m saying is, everybody (and I wholly agree, by the way) has been saying that Vantruck absolutely needs an International IDI 7.3 or its successor, the Powerstroke 7.3L diesel. Something of its bulging Kazakhstani child-bearing hips presentation just screams it must rattle like a old tractor and smell like warm coals. There’s no social media peanut gallery about it without a number of people wistfully encouraging swapping out the Malaise-era 460. And again, I completely agree. Alas, work of that degree I considered out of scope for the facilities I had available – I know plenty of people have done parking lot engine swaps, but I just didn’t feel like dealing with it, and at the time didn’t have a cohort of Car People friends who wanted to speed the process along.

Well now, with a place I can stash something for an indeterminate period of time, I decided it was high time to take people up on their word and begin learning the ecosystem. My goal was to find a Ford van of Vantruck’s same generation which was built with the 6.9L and 7.3L IDI engine, implying a year range of 1984 to 1991. While I could have just as easily picked up a later 4th-generation model or an old ambulance or something, I decided to constrain the search for the time being to just those years to get as 1-to-1 of a parts correspondence as possible. Worse case, I figured ,it’ll be a vantruck surrogate.

I say “just as easily”, but the reality is the diesel vans (and F-series trucks) command a premium over the average clapped out yard ornament conversion or work van. They’re popular with the bugout and overlanding crowd because the engine and powertrain is legendary for being nearly indestructible and extremely customizable. I casually checked my usual orbiting van cruft clouds – Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace all up along the east coast BAMA corridor whose transit times and approach paths I know well – for a good three or so months, interleaving with the build of Overhaul and intenstifying as the prospect of an April BattleBots filming became bleaker.

You’d generally find them in two states. First was immaculate or intricately upgraded, commanding prices of $5000 and up. Otherwise, it was sunken into the earth and had hosted several dozen generations of small mammals and local reptiles inside. Since I wasn’t absolutely dying to adopt another project, I was looking for specifically something which was “Ran When Parked” but seemed plausible to unpark rather quickly. Kind of like another sadvan, but much heavier. Two hits I found were snatched up before I even got a response. While my guiding principle of van collecting is “Rare doesn’t mean valuable”, it seems like there are still some local maxima of value I didn’t know about.

Well one day in mid May, I finally happened upon a listing just hours after it was posted.

Murdervan

 

Richmond is a drive, but nothing I haven’t done before in a day. Having ran as recently as the last winter was a good sign also. I chatted with the seller some to get a few more details, and with consultation from my Diesel Bro Council, decided to go for it the following weekend. I made an offer of $1000 and he accepted. I decided to name this thing Murdervan because it really gave off the ol’ serial killer van vibe, and the seller reminded me a little of Charles Manson. I completely accepted the potential fate of ending up as a trophy in a basement, and just asked my friends to keep an eye out if Vantruck gets listed in an ad next.

 

And so, here we are on the morning late afternoon of May 30th. I’m ready to set sail towards Richmond. I was planning on getting out at 8 in the morning and being in the vicinity in time to grab a hotel for the evening, but you how that goes with me. Instead, I left Atlanta around 4PM and took a rest stop nap from around 2am to 8am the next day, going directly to the burbs of Richmond after.

Nestled in a quaint park-like neighborhood was the seller’s smol house and yard, with this thing squarely in the middle. Well, at least it’s van shaped and there are no visible mantraps, and the driveway slope made it a pretty reasonable gravity-assist push load onto a trailer.

Overall, Murdervan checked out as described in the ad. The interior was pretty messy and barren, and the driver’s side floor had a giant rust hole in it, but nothing insurmountable. After all, if I got it “running”, I wasn’t in it for the chassis except as a parts donor. It would crank, but not fire up. My friends said as long as it wasn’t seized, it will run. Guess I’ll find out soon how true that is??!

Whatever the case might be, it was loading time!

I had questions about whether an extended wheelbase van (138″) would even fit on a U-Haul car trailer. The Internet seemed convinced that the deck length of a U-Haul car trailer was 12 foot even – 144″. This was going to be a dice roll, since after accommodating for wheel size, it might barely not  fit at all, and would hang over the end. I made a few contingency plans for this, and picked up two sets of chains and chain binders on the way at a Harbor Freight.

I had a local friend meet me there, so we had 3 people to help load. And believe me, we needed all three. These things are almost 6,000 pounds, by far the biggest catch I’ve tried bringing home. The “gravity feed” only got the front wheels onto the trailer, and various arrangements of come-alongs and Ass Force were used to pull the front wheels against the stop.

At that point, the rear wheel centers were still a good two inches or so on the wrong side of the edge. To improve this loading scenario, we deflated the front tires and pulled the come-along further to compress them.

 

The final alignment – just barely inboard. Those two chain binders were used to smash this thing down as tightly as possible, because utter hilarity would result otherwise!

And so, there you have it, Internet: A 138″ wheelbase Econoline Super Van will, with some effort, fit on a U-Haul auto transport. Do NOT let them see it. This is a 1999 Honda Civic.

I set out from Richmond after lunchtime with everyone to celebrate this feat. This trailer and van setup pulled quite well, I must say. With the combined load being about 8,000 pounds – therefore running around 14,000 gross weight –  I could certainly entertain the thought of Murdervan and trailer being a comically large RV trailer, which vantrucks evolved to pull in their natural habitat.

There were a couple of times it tried to wiggle, more from “Top heavy and jiggly van” than weight distribution issues from my observation. Vantruck’s dually rear axle kept it so damped out that I didn’t even feel it the first time. The only sign was “Why is everyone keeping far away….”, looking in the rear view mirror , and seeing the thing sway side to side a few inches at steady state.

This was a riot pulling into rest stops and gas stations (MANY, MANY GAS STATIONS). By my estimate, I was getting high sevens for fuel economy, and this was trying to keep it under 65mph.

I overnighted outside of Greenville, SC in a hotel room since I didn’t get worthwhile sleep the night before (or really the night before that…), so I decided to force power down before something memeful happened on my behalf. I rolled back to the #RobotTrapHouse the next morning. Here began the fun of trying to stuff Murdervan into the yard.

I first tried to reverse up the gentle slope that leads from the street/driveway to the yard entrance. However, even having bypassed/locked out the surge brake that all these trailers come with (which largely prevent reversing, as the brakes will apply), Vantruck was just digging four trenches into the grass. So instead I decided to just head straight in, gathering steam on the street and driveway, and deal with whatever happened next. The whole van train just barely makes the entry turn to avoid the….

Yeah, nope – there was some Dynamic Landscaping involved to get the trailer to not catch on the chain link fence edge. Remember, I don’t own this place (…yet…), so I don’t just get to rip out trees and fences as I feel like to improve van access. The through-paved rear access road comes after the closing.

 

Unloading Murdervan was super simple. Just point the trailer vaguely where I wanted to land, release the chains and straps, and reinflate the front tires.

After the unload, we spent a good half hour trying to squeeze Vantruck and trailer out, and realized that the van train was simply too long to back out the same way. This should have theoretically worked out, but trees are largely one-way clutches when it comes to driving through them – I almost pulled one of the front fender flares off trying to position the way I came in.  And so, we decided to swap trucks – my friend’s crew cab short bed truck was only a little shorter than Vantruck, but more importantly, it had more wheel cut and was not a dually, so it was narrower. Gentle massaging and a few retries later, we had the trailer backed out of the yard.

Lesson learned – don’t do that again, not with vantruck. Only after the fact did we go “Hmm, maybe Mikuvan could have been the yard shuttle…”

And here she sits in the initial dropoff location, featuring a cameo from one of the neighborhood cats. If you put a bowl of food and water out, cat instances will spawn from the cloud. If you present a new yard ornament, cats will sleep on top of it. I call them the “Cats-as-a-service”, and there are four regulars that come around.

I put the batteries on charge and began reading up on debug and bootup procedures. Much of Murdervan’s “build reports”, so to speak, are largely going to feature diving into the IDI ecosystem, checking through things, and making repairs to improve functionality – the same steps that Vantruck went through which I called “deshittification”.

The story only really begins here.

Spoolbus

Keep in mind, just because I got one van, doesn’t mean I’m going to stop browsing. I’m continually on the hunt, as even if I don’t get something for myself, someone else might be interested and I can assist with the poor life decision (There will be posts about this, too!).  And so, not two weeks after the Murdervan mission, this absolute piece shows up in the Algorithm™:

 

 

Okay, back up a little here. This was one of the ads that I didn’t even get to hear back from before someone snatched it up, all the way back in early April.  Between then and mid-June, it made its way to south Georgia, only about 3 hours away. The second listing is long gone, and only through some serendipitous use of the Save button by someone else were we even able to find this original listing again.

So why did it show back up? Did someone give up on it because it was just too horrible? Inquiring minds, mostly mine, wanted to know. The photos showed the aftermarket Banks turbocharger system hiding right under the dashboard (seriously? that’s where they decided to put it?) and the updated listing showed some more photos of the interior (stripped out and ratty) and under the hood.

Whatever, diesel or not, this was going to be a good one to add to the collection. Single rear wheel Centurion vantrucks were extremely rare themselves, and not only that, the OEM Centurion bed appeared to be whole and intact. Even Vantruck itself came with damaged fiberglass that had to be repaired (then replaced outright when it was rear-ended). And the 80s stripes!

I had only a few words with the new seller before just offering $1K again and pickup the same weekend. That’s my usual M.O. – if I think something’s worth getting, I’d wait until the middle of the week, throw in a not-that-lowball offer, and offer almost immediate turnaround. Most people who sell such decrepit piles just want them out of the way and don’t want to deal with hagglers and noncommitment. I just offer to make it disappear.

And so on another bright moist day in the middle of June, I’m driving an hour away from I-75 in the southerly extents of Warner Robins, on little two lane state roads. This thing had made it all the way to a placed called Abbeville, Georgia, where you passed the church and gas station on the corner and that was about it.

I have to say, this was the easiest load ever. It drove onto the tow dolly under its own ignition and power thereafter! It just couldn’t stop except for the parking brake. The seller indicated it might need a new master cylinder or repaired brake lines, and indeed, the pedal just goes to the floor. He just ran out of time and energy to deal with it after wanting to make the repairs, and was in the middle of selling a portion of his fourteen other trucks. I was offered a mid 1990s F-350 dumptruck on the spot for $500.

This time I went for the tow dolly, as the extended wheelbase on these things (158″ typically) was just too long for the car trailer, even with shoving. With the rear wheel on the ground, I just had to remove the driveshaft. But it seems like swishing a 4.10:1 gearset around in heavy oil adds immense drag the same, as my fuel economy making it back home was somehow even worse than towing Murdervan.

How often do you see this vantruck on vantruck towing action? HOW OFTEN?

 

Spoolbus was a very well contained one-day trip. I set out from the Atlanta area before lunchtime and was back around 9:30 PM, taking 3 hours to get there and 4 to get back, moving slower and hitting some traffic on the return.

And it even drove itself into the back yard! I had one hand on the steering wheel and another holding the parking brake release lever open, using my left foot to modulate the parking brake to not run my own garage down.

And suddenly, there were two.

Great, what a start to the summer. At the point in time of this picture, I’d already gotten Murdervan operational, so it was an excellent reference to compare and contrast the differences between the 1991 7.3 IDI and the 1984 6.9 with aftermarket shenanigans.

Based on talking to the sellers and getting vehicle history reports, I know that Murdervan was a company shuttle in western North Carolina doing forestry work for most of its 197,000 miles (!) before being sold to a private buyer in Virginia, who I actually linked up with on Instagram and Facebook. That seller sold it eastward to Richmond, where Not Quite Charles Manson took possession for a while before I ended up with it.

Spoolbus has a murkier history, but had one owner all the way up to 2005 when the last title action was taken around Columbia, SC. Based on talking to the original ad’s lister (not the guy I picked it up from in Georgia), the previous owner to him was the original owner, and it was used to deliver RVs and boats all up and down the southeastern seacoast, mostly centered in Charleston. That explains the hefty amount of rust on the body, completely uncharacteristic of southern vehicles. Vantruck itself was a west coast surfmobile/beach van and it had plenty of cab rust the same, though in both cases, the frames are pretty immaculate.

For the next couple of weeks, you can expect lots of posts about me being a makeshift diesel mechanic! Spoolbus is going to be the “build target” for the next round of improvements and restoration, as I want to return its electric lemony goodness to its former glory and have a single-wheel Centurion example. This is likely going to be a 2021 onwards project, with the rest of 2020 being casual mechanicking to deshittify the absolutely terrific aftermarket wiring and other systems.

I call this the Three Econoline Problem.

 

Thank You for Calling Big Chuck’s Lawn and Landscaping: Introducing Crabmower

This website is now a van.

In my circles, “being a van” refers to something which needs constant upkeep and repair before it can be useful. If you have a certain arcane procedure and checklist for booting something up, or a very prescribed set of operating conditions and limitations, then you have a van. Vans do not have to be van shaped to be considered vans, as the state of van is a radically inclusive and individualistic phenomenon. Mikuvan was, for the longest time, a van. It’s still a van, just less in the van sense. Get it!?

Running on an installation of WordPress now over 10 years old that’s no longer supported and full of security holes, with plenty of my custom-hacked PHP and CSS dating back to 2007, and all plopped on a hosting which Godaddy has called me plenty of times about calling it “Legacy”…. this website is a van. You in fact might have noticed it, in fact. There’s a little annoying spambot that occasionally hijacks and redirects search engine referrals and tries to sell you dick pills on my behalf. I pry this thing off the PHP directories every once in a while, like an advertisement-laden barnacle. It doesn’t affect the site within itself, only search results like from Google hits and the like. Well it turns out everyone just searches ‘charles guan site’ because this site’s name is impossible to spell for normal people!

Anyways, that Van Factor along with my summer mechanical misappropriations is why this site’s been so dead lately. There is plenty of content, I just don’t want to keep updating it and maintaining it, so I walked for a while. But now I figure I’d get in a few more posts, download the database and file structure, then nuke the whole thing from orbit and try again with a modern CMS or something. We’ll see when I actually devote the mental energy and time to Internets again.

I’ve said it often before in various contexts including here, that modern social media just makes it too easy to share stuff to a big audience and so the extra effort of maintaining a static website presence is less rewarding. I’m no social butterfly, but Instagram has certainly made it easy to puke photos onto the Internet. As I am mainly a visual storyteller anyhow, I adopted it more in earnest this year. For the latest candid and disorganized photos, look here at my Instagram page @fakecharlesguan first. This is a deliberate choice in username, as if I get famous enough and someone tries to make a fake me page, they will have to necessarily use @officialcharlesguan or something similar, adding to the confusion and hilarity. Be prepared for many cats and electrical atrocities.

Obviously, a lot of the new not-seen-here content will eventually make it here in a static format, such as the series of posts I want to write called The Summer of Ven. You can guess what that might entail.

Anyways, let’s get back to the #RobotTrapHouse. You know what it has? A lawn. You know what lawns do? They grow, and while I’m technically under no obligation to perform lawn maintenance in my lease, I also don’t want to That Guy too much just yet for the neighborhood. For a few months into the spring and summer, I decided that I was done trimming grass in high school, so I paid for it As A Service. Then I decided that the yard isn’t really that big and maybe this was a chance to get another horrible machine of some kind to tear apart or improve.

I actually was looking first at a current-gen brushless self-propelled electric lawn mower such as the Harbor Freight Special. It was more about the curiosity of what kind of value engineering went into such a power system, in the same vein as my dissections of serial killer equipment. It got to the point where I actually went to Harbor Freight to inspect the goods in person, drawing up plans for using the dual rear drive wheels to make it autonomous. I kept an eye on Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist for used ones – that was my first mistake – but it seems like they’re a bit too new to begin circulating on the informal economy cruft cloud.

Then one morning, I saw this thing.

 

What in the hell? It looked like a walk-behind commercial mower at first, but other photos showed it had a seat. What the absolute, interminable fuck is with that drive belt? The “My granpappy left it to me” quip in the ad made me wonder if it was homemade by Granpappy himself, or so far cut up from a production model that it’s basically the same.

I obviously had to offer the insultingly low price of $200 – figuring it’ll get declined but I was out to spend $200 or so on something anyway. That was my second mistake.

Well, it’s the following Saturday, and my third and final mistake was complete: Renting the trailer.

 

Luckily, this thing was only about 15 minutes away by van. It was exactly as described: Covered in rat shit and lawn detritus, all tires flat, and with random parts everywhere. After looking it over, I decided… why the hell not. Worst case I attach two Overhaul motors to the drive wheels and make it remote controlled.

Vantruck carries my “yard wreckage recovery kit”, so I just busted out the tire filler and proceeded to fill up the drive tires. Sadly, the steer tire was completely destroyed and would not fill.

So the seller towed it out of the building with his truck and helped shove it into mine, which was a fair ways away since I couldn’t get right up to it and turn around.

 

By the time this process was done, the rear wheel was definitely quite sad. Look at those rear forks and bracket it rests against – that’s solid 1/2″ and 5/8″ thick steel bar!

We’ve returned to the #RobotTrapHouse now with my absolutely HOA-terrorizing long unkempt grass. I decided that since it was still bright and early (for me… so, 3PM) and with the summer yielding plenty of sunlight, I’d try to get it running and drive it into the yard for more work and repair later.

(Note: This area doesn’t have an HOA, but again, everyone else does keep their yard nice and clean so I might as well give a superficial attempt)

First order of business was taking the rear wheel off. A nearby tire shop had a selection of lawn tires also, so I asked for them to put on a replacement. I’m used to non-automotive tires being split rims that use inner tubes, but it seems this thing is Pro enough that it actually uses one-piece tubeless wheels, so I couldn’t pry it off myself. Fancy!

As I worked on it, of course, I started doing research on what on earth it was I actually bought. Why didn’t I do this beforehand, you say… well what’s the fun in that?

So this thing is a Yazoo Master Mower, built by the Yazoo Manufacturing company out of Mississippi. Yazoo has now reached semantic saturation for you and just sounds funny. Yazoo.

It seems to be good ol’ redneck ingenuity sent straight to production, which was exciting. The company appears to have made some legendarily durable/serviceable commercial and consumer lawn equipment into the 80s when they merged with another company, and the bloodline today lives on in Husqvarna lawn and garden equipment.

Judging by how many “THIS PRODUCT IS UNSAFE” stickers are on it, it’s right in line with my interests! This is how all products should be made, by the way. The goobermint can set safety bars, but you should be able to voluntarily not abide by them. If I then buy your brightly labeled unsafe product because I think it’s cool, then that’s kind of on me, no?

 

Look at this wild drive belt. Just look at it.

The major innovative feature of this transmission, apparently fully built in-house, is that it contains a set of double clutches with reversing gears. One lever will flip it between forward and reverse not by crashing gears together, but just by engaging the clutches. The rear wheel steered like a forklift and allowed a near-zero turn radius. I know nothing about the lawn care industry at all, mind you, just that this is dope. The only thing they couldn’t do with this transaxle, it seems, was make it take a sideways input shaft. Instead, we have Pretzelbelt here.

Here’s why I like maintaining a real website. I discovered someone else has a website about servicing and modifying this incredibly obscure, niche piece of equipment that I bought without much planning. I get e-mails all the time from people who bought some obscure, niche piece of equipment and then it turns out I dissected it or fixed it up on this very website, whether that’s random scooter motors or the Ryobi chainsaw or even up to the giant Surplus Center gearmotor. I have apparently sold people on getting their own piles of Chinesium because they read about it on this website.  At least one person got a Mitsubishi van project because of all the posts about Mikuvan showing its ins and outs.

This is the kind of thing that is very hard to do with contemporary social media which is very focused on The Now and not The Later. Even Youtube videos are hard to search through since you have to remember what video title contained what content, at what time, and if the user account got hard-canceled by Twitter or not.

Interestingly enough, while looking it over harder, I found a very faded decal from a local lawn equipment service company. They’re not far away, and are still in business. It was very tempting to tow the thing right then up to their door and make it their problem again.


It was getting late in the day now, and I couldn’t get the thing to really stay running. It would happily run if I fed it a steady trip of starting fluid (ether), and did independently run once for a short time. It seemed like it was having fueling issues – fuel was getting to the (oh no) carburetor, but  seemingly not making it out. I figured it was just full of grunge from sitting in Granpappy’s shop forever.

Either way, it was getting later in the day now and I had to return the trailer, and I hate carburetors. I decided to just drop it off in the covered carport for later perusal.

Off the trailer it goes! I just pushed it to the edge of the ramp and let gravity do the heavy dropping. There was enough drag with it in gear and with all of the small idler wheels that it took some more pushing to even get it all the way off the ramp.

This is a carburetor. I hate it.

I was about to see if anyone made retrofit fuel injection systems for tiny engines as I took it apart. Anyways, fuel comes in the top left hose, some magic unicorn thing happens, and it exits in the airflow stream of the intake. The big lever on the horizontal runner is the manual choke, and the little stepped lever behind and under the whole assembly is the engine speed governor, which I learned pulls against your speed setting cable as the engine speeds up and therefore closes the throttle slightly to keep the engine speed steady. The uppermost twirly-gig with the adjustment screw is actually the throttle flap itself.

I began removing screws and separating the components. I couldn’t blow through the fuel inlet, so something’s just not passing…. gas

It took a while of friend consulting and fiddling for me to figure out what was going on. For one reason or another, the carburetor float (the brass soldered donut, which is hollow) and the needle valve it actuates was either out of position, incorrectly reassembled by someone, or was bent out of shape, because in what should have been a fully empty position it was barely letting me blow through the needle valve. Only if I let it hang down to a physically impossible position if assembled was it freely flowing.

Obviously this is going to mean almost no fuel enters the float bowl. I otherwise couldn’t find any “gunk” from it sitting.

I had to bend down the Lever of Needle Valve Actuation a fair bit to achieve a state where it would admit fuel in a physically plausible location.

 

Well it’s all put back together now, everything’s lubed up and resealed and freely working, so let’s just turn the key and see what happens.

And there we have it. I moved the vans far out of the way so I could practice driving a bit. This thing is weird. First, I’m not used to driving a lawn mower/tractor where you set a speed and aren’t really manipulating the throttle all the time. You really do drive it with the forward/reverse clutch lever, and it will reverse hard enough to throw me off the seat. What else throws you off the seat? Doing a hard zero point turn by swinging the rear-steer all the way! Everything you do seems to be ejecting yourself. No wonder they said it’s unsafe!

But fun? Very.

Now with it running and driving, it was time to make some other facility improvements before seeing if it’s good at its One Job.

First of all, like every other thing I’ve bought nth-hand, the wiring is atrocious. I repaired the positive side by cleaning up a lot of the corroded terminals and lugs, and ran a new ground wire to the battery because the existing one was just completely hopeless. It started far more enthusiastically afterwards. There’s not much wiring on this thing save for the starter/dynamo circuit and the ignition circuit.

 

The deck seemed to run fine, so I decided to just untangle and clean it out. While doing so, I pulled out this old ‘murican flag, covered in plant grunge and reeking of rat urine.

Guys. It emitted an American flag at me.

This is how I’m making America great again.

Notice the deck is lifted up by a jack here. I elevated it further with a chunk of 4×4 wood (leftover from workbench construction) so I could get under and inspect the blades and spindles. I couldn’t back off the spindle nuts to put new blades on, so for now, I did an in-place sharpen using an angle grinder.

The two large springs in the front counterbalance the deck and allow you to use a lever on the side to raise it slightly. With one spring broken, lifting the deck was kind of hopeless at my scale of force input. I’m sure a burly 300 pound gardener could do it just fine still, but I ordered replacement springs from McMaster the day before. They’re a bit weaker than needed, since it still takes some serious lunging effort to throw the lever, but at least now it’s plausible.

…and its first cut, one week after the purchase.

Okay, I’m not even. Even what? I dunno. Not mad, not glad, not sad, just d a d.

It’s been clean over a decade since I’ve cut any kind of grass, and I must say this …. device made very short work of it. And this was with crudely angle-ground blades in a position I could barely see what I was grinding!

It was hard to track straight since the forklift wheel had a lot of slop in it. relative to the steering wheel, even after I tightened the connecting #40 chain between them beforehand. Inspection revealed either a mostly stripped keyway or broken weld, so I’ll have to take it apart some day and bang it back together. Once I got going pointed in a direction, it was fine, but the corrections needed every U-turn needed getting used to. The top speed isn’t much more than a brisk walk, which is just fine by me, as I am not yet trying to race someone else’s lawn mower.

So afterwards, I gave it a good wash and blasted all the remaining grass grunge off the rider deck. I think I’m going to get a racing seat for this thing, as it absolutely needs bolstering. I’m not sure if you were supposed to anchor yourself from being obese or throw a ratchet strap on yourself or what, but the hardest part by far was just staying on the damn thing.

As a finishing touch, I was informed by a friend who used to be an actual lawn professional that the two mysterious forks in the front were for a roller to intercept obstacles. Not knowing what model roller would fit on this thing, I decided one round plastic thing was the same as any other and just 3D printed one in approximately the size and shape needed. The ridges aren’t for anything special, just adding more radial stiffness without having to make the thing solid.

And that’s it. With minimal fuss, crab-mower has done the lawn every 2 weeks. With fall and winter now approaching, I’ll probably lube and tune everything and tuck it away fairly soon. It was an interesting little distraction, a week-long dive into yet another obsolete technology. This and much more will come soon in the Summer of Ven post series!

 

More About the #RobotTrapShop and Building Up a New Workspace

While writing my previous post about moving back South, I decided that there was enough content about putting together the garage workspace to warrant its own post. You see, this is really the first time I’ve ever really built up a workspace for myself only. I’ve built up and operated/managed quite a few facilities now, and even if it was “my shop” in the sense that I oversee and get to use it a lot, it still was always shared.

There was my time at MITERS, the MIT student makerspace – then upstairs in my research group the MIT International Design Center. Then another shared workspace at the old mill building we called “The Mochi Palace” prior to it being converted over for company use.  I suppose there was Big Chuck’s Auto Body over the spring and summer, but that was a very temporary and focused setup. My hope is this shop will be in place – or at least travel with me – for a few years yet.  But I’d be lying if I said that brief taste of having a workspace that was just mine and wasn’t critical to the operation of something else, or had to be kept up in appearances for somebody else’s tastes, didn’t influence my ultimate decision to seek less costly pastures.

First, before we get to the shop, though, we gotta talk about The Move:

I’d already containerized my life pretty well due to the somewhat frequent moving of shops in the past few years, so I just continued ordering more of the same sized 27″ totey-bins. The FIRST Robotics branded ones date back to the “Recycle Rush” game a few years ago and were picked up for real cheap. This meant that beyond loose large automotive tools such as the engine crane and errant van parts, the move was quite well coordinated. What I didn’t get into totes got put into some large cardboard boxes left over from company-received shipment (e.g. of toolboxes and big plastic tanks among other things).  The 16 foot Uhaul truck was filled to about 4 feet in front of the door, which was earmarked for furniture.  This whole thing was tied up in the “web of lies” formation shown above, as we nicknamed it.

While I’m not that big of a stickler for organization, it was a good time to take account of everything heavy that I owned, and I actually sold off a lot of stuff on eBay over the fall months that more or less funded the entire move! Hurray!

First order of business: Puke everything inside the garage and deal with it later!

 

Couple days in and I’m working on setting the shelves back up, at least, so I can start throwing totes and robot parts onto them.

I also decided to just spend a weekend in early January and build myself some workbenches. I spent a while scouting Craigslist, classified ads, and equipment dealers, but wasn’t really finding any ones that looked good in the quantity I was hoping for. There were some, but I’d basically be buying new anyway costwise (Then I’d just buy new). So instead of dropping like $1000 on workbenches when I can blow on Overhaul instead, I decided to spend $100 at Home Depot and knock these out. I made two 3 x 8 foot benches in the “usual” hobbyist style – for some reason, basically every workbench I’ve seen be handmade is made this way. Guess it’s a pretty solid design for the effort involved.

I also made a rolling table for Overhaul and eventually other projects, just the same method but with the legs cut short so I could put it on a set of total-locking casters, and have it be…

…equal in height to the benches for easy transfer of things on and off!

Overall I was quite satisfied with the “Majority of 1 Saturday” work and cost. My only regret? Using the OSB as a top. I might skin it in hardboard or MDF later on. The tops are double layered 1/2″ OSB – nice and sturdy, but don’t run your hand across it. I coated the edges with some left over spray-on urethane I brought down, which lowered the splinter factor somewhat.

 

By mid-January, it’s almost looking like a functional workspace! I noticed there was a light fixture with a broken bulb up above the lower set of rafters, so I decided to get a gigantic 100W (actual!) LED “corn cob” light to put up there. It really lights the place up, but casts strange shadows due to the rafters.

I ordered extra shelves to unpack Big Chuck’s Auto Body and also finally give my screw collection a home.

 

When the opportunity presented, I also went on tool runs based on findings from Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, and the like. I managed to land this ‘vintage’ Craftsman bandsaw for only $100. I was out to get a vertical bandsaw to at least be able to cut most sheet materials to make stuff if need be, and wanted to avoid getting a chintzy small one. This Craftsman was the perfect size – I could wrestle it around, but also trusted it was solid enough to do actual work.

 

One cheeky change I made though, right after getting it, was re-gearing the saw through its belt drive. It was definitely a wood-cutting bandsaw by intent – there’s only like a 2:1 ratio between the motor and the blade wheels. I changed this to a roughly 4.25:1, halving the blade speed. Once I put a 14 tooth variable-pitch bimetal blade on it, this thing was basically unstoppable in aluminum. I tested cutting a 2″ wide bar through its width (i.e. a 2″ depth of cut) and it was handled admirably. Just can’t do steel on it, since the blade speed is still much too high- I’d have to put a back gear on it or something to be able to cut steels.

In early February now, and I’ve basically set the space up for Overhaul work. You can see another Craigslist acquisiton to the left – the 3-ton size arbor press. I haven’t given it a permanent home yet, but it just gets clamped to whatever bench I need to smash something on.

Rewinding a bit back to the week of move-in… one of the first things to go up is the 3D printing station and Equals Zero shipping area.

Later on, I found this table on the damn sidewalk while driving home one day through the back residential streets. How quaint! Good thing I only have vehicles that can convey large volumes of stuff. I gave the top a quick sanding and oil coat, and here we are – supplemental shipping/assembly bench or electronics area.

Check out the row of Equals Zero stock shelves in the background. I found a “local minima” price solution that was ordering a certain Home Depot shelf size online (picking up in person) and then ordering a certain set of casters on Amazon. There’s more of these now, actually.

Speaking of which, I also handed Jeff Bezos some money to dress out this corner as an EE station. Hopefully I’ll pick up more instrumentation too, relatively soon! Right now it’s enough to put together Ragebridges and whatnot, which is all I need it for.

Obviously these facilities will evolve as I need them. For now, they’ll carry me through most of the projects I think I’ll get up to, and allow some basic consulting work to happen too. There’s the unfinished basement which is currently very underutilized because it’s not climate controlled and tends to be a bit moist and drafty – not a good environment for 3D printers or electronics. I currently have it just as cold storage, but might move more things there such as the van parts shelf if I end up collecting more tools.  But here we are! Welcome to the #RobotTrapShop.

A New Beginning: The 17th Chapter; Back to the A-Town

Geez, how many times have I made this kind of post on this site? Seems like I change local environs quite often! Thus is the nature of fast-paced, action-packed entrepreneurship and #startupthuglyfe. In 2015, I left my position as an MIT instructor and set up at the Artisan’s Asylum. It’s hard to believe Sadbot is almost 5 years old, but indeed, I built its first version in the fall and winter of 2015, along with the first experiments in what would become Brushless Rage.

Just over a year later, my buddy Adam Bercu (of team Brutus) and I rented a somewhat very derelict old manufacturing building unit north of Boston, finally having a place we could call “The Shop”. From here, Equals Zero Designs went a lot bigger time, and we took on almost a dozen local consulting gigs and contract design/manufacturing jobs. And from there, as things tend to evolve, the “startup” I’ve been hinting at since 2018 or so was formed.

Now, for 2020, I’ve set up in yet another new location:

welcome to the #RobotTrapHouse

Don’t get too excited, I didn’t buy it….yet

The plot twist though? It’s in Atlanta, Georgia! So what’s the deal… did you bring the company with you? Quite the opposite, rather: After two and a half years of co-piloting the ship from its humble inception, I decided I was finally comfortable in leaving Boston for good. Equals Zero did travel with me (as the pile of Ragebridges in the dining room can attest to), and I still retain some equity in the company, so I’m extremely supportive of everyone there helping making it succeed.

charles on startups

Now is the time that I’ll finally reveal what it is I’ve been up to, what with over a dozen posts hinting at Product this and Company that. The company is Kiwi Technologies, the product is a giant-ass drone for agricultural payloads, and I was its founding and early stage CTO.

I have a lot to say about going through the whole motion of doing a venture-backed startup company, and it took some time and separation for me to really be able to put it in words and organized thoughts. The short story is, I wouldn’t hesitate to do it all over again, and I enjoyed greatly the “wild west” days of chasing the business case while also moving rapidly with a demoable, potentially saleable product from concept to testing. I could probably write a whole book, much less a blog post, on How to Your First Startup at this point. I do believe we did as many things “right” as possible, because both Adam and I had extensive experience working with, working for, or advising startups in Boston that ultimately crashed and burned.

There’s often a distinction in startup-world between a founding CTO and an operating or growth CTO. The first one is often a founder or co-founder and has to pull together many domains of knowledge in order to quickly advance product development. That, I felt, was where I shined the most. It was where I felt able to provide both the most value in terms of personal contributions, and (more importantly) to help organize and direct engineers’ efforts. But as the company’s needs grew from R&D and prototyping into becoming a more deployment and sales-centric organization, I definitely felt like my usefulness began to wane, as my interests were no longer aligned with the goals and needs of the company. That’s alright – this is why you hire good people, after all. We combed through our network hard, spearfishing for the people we thought would make for the best leaders in certain segments of the company, and eventually hired enough folks that could do my job(s) far better than I could – an actual electronics engineer, an actual software engineer with extensive firmware and controls experience, etc.

While I don’t like tooting my own horn (beep), I like to think that one of my personal traits that helped the company along is that I don’t really have an egotistical stake in anything. I don’t need to have my name be first anywhere, or be known as a revolutionary god-king or even feel the need to take credit for every accomplishment if we all contributed hard work to it. It meant, above all else, knowing when to stop, and that I think is something that a lot of engineers and inventor types have trouble with. In a way, this is also me admitting that I’ll never be an Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos kind of figure. But hey, you live and you learn more about yourself when challenged with things way outside of your usual modus operandi.

So we discussed my resignation and replacement in the middle of July 2019, and my last actions at the company took place more or less right after my Dragon Con trip – 30haul was the last thing I made in our shop, then we agreed that I would recuse myself from visiting or being around the company daily so as to help keep the leadership transition clean. After November, I would only visit to pack up and move out!

so what the hell did you build, anyway?

Without divulging too many insider details, the early days of “the company” in 2017 was still more of an Equals Zero side project. There was a lot of experimentation in trying to create a low-cost, high-thrust/high efficiency propeller pod using commercial, off the shelf (COTS) and especially hobby-grade parts, without just spamming outrunners and small props. We were, back then, intent on taking on the many Silicon Valley based aerial taxi/personal VTOL companies, places I called (openly, to our potential investors, maybe to the chagrin of everyone else) “Daddy’s Money Companies” referring to Larry Page bankrolling a lot of them.

As we prowled the network, agricultural application (“crop dusting”) entered the realm of possibilities and quickly revealed itself to be an industry worthy of transformation. Conceptual work solidified in 2018 with a first flying prototype (still looking kind of like a personal rideable VTOL, since we already designed that), and in 2019 with the first customer-targeted prototype using much bigger gear. The object seen on the website today is another iteration based on customer’s needs and feedback.

Again, maybe in due time, one day, I’ll go back through my photos and make some “build reports”. But as one of the biggest lessons I learned while part of this grand experiment was some times you have to shut up about what you’re doing in order to preserve its value to others, I’ll simply present one photo of what I was most proud of:

That there is an eight hundred pound all-electric quadcopter with a 120kW powertrain. The tank on top is a 50 gallon agricultural spray tank. All I can say is, I have a lot of personal business in this realm that’s unfinished, and one day I hope to revisit it.

anyways, back to the #RobotTrapHouse

The observant will notice that I had a post gap in the middle of the Vantruck restoration this summer, between late July and late September. That was largely attributable to me hustling the project along while making sure the loose ends were getting tied off at the shop, while making transition documentation. Then there was a gap until late November – during this time, I made a van trip to Atlanta to scout out housing and interview in-person at a few job candidates.

I was real excited to find this place in particular because it’s very close to a massive shopping center/retail area in an inner suburb, not out in McMansionland like what is very easy to get in Atlanta otherwise. It’s an older 3 bedroom, 2 bathroom house with a half-basement in the “split level” style, with a detached (!) 25 foot square, 2-car sized garage building in the back yard. It stood out so much against other housing candidates that, after visiting, I decided to open loop move: that I will capture it first, job offers be damned, because I could always try and run a consulting gig from the workshop!

So I actually laid out quite a bit of cash here – as I wasn’t employed at the time, I negotiated with the owner to pay up front the first 3 months. I figure if I couldn’t find employment or start something by then, it was never meant to be.

The move itself was held in 2 stages starting December 15th. First, I (with the help of many) packed up all of my mountains of robot junk and life needs (one vastly outweighing and outsizing the other…. guess which) and re-enacted this very common scene:

Then after puking everything inside and pretending to live like a human being for a few days, I flew back to Boston to retrieve my white elephant, which held some other less critical life goodies. This ended about as well as you’d expect:

So how on earth did you make it all the way to Dragon Con and back? Whatever.

I got close enough (mid-Virginia on I-81) that a friend and I were able to chain AAA tow benefits to drop it off in my driveway (!!!) where it can hang out unmolested. I’ll deal with YOU later.

Anyways, I spent the first couple of weeks getting a handle on the new environment and new job & coworkers, working on finishing Overhaul 3’s design (you know what’s coming next!) and most importantly…

Building up the future home of Overhaul and friends. I constructed a few workbenches and a 4 x 8 foot rolling worktable and ordered more shelves, as well as some other toys:

This time, I pledged to not buy anything that weighed several thousand pounds which could not also move itself. While this opens the floor up to more vans, it meant I was going to keep my machinery small. I haven’t had a personal tinylathe since the MIT IDC days, and since then the market structure has changed significantly. There’s a ton more options now! What you see here is an “8×16” model, basically the 7 inch lathe with a 1 inch spacer on everything. I was fine with this since it gave me the additional diameter I would need to turn even some Overhaul-sized parts. This machine is worth a Beyond Unboxing post as a tour – one of many back-posts I need to make now that life has finally collapsed its wavefunctions and I feel some sense of normalcy™.

Wait! Did I say “more vans”? Because this is how you get more vans:

 

Yup. This is how you know I’ve finally snapped: I bought a Real People Car.

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome the current-events-relevant-named #Coronavan to Big Chuck’s Auto Body.

After starting my new job in January, I now have a Real People Commute – it’s 20 miles one way, which isn’t bad by Atlantese standards, but is much more than the 4-5 miles daily of life back in the denser inner suburbs of Boston. After Mikuvan crested 250,000 miles one day coming home….

…and after Vantruck got rear-ended a second time coming back from the local monthly car show, this time a hit-and-run…

…I decided that once and for all that having my meme fleet serve daily duty, especially a rare and unusual thing like Mikuvan for which parts are not readily available, was just too much risk. That was a crash which would have likely totaled out Mikuvan. Granted, I barely felt it and thought I hit a pothole or speed bump I didn’t see.

(Seriously, how do people miss the wall of Miku slowing down in front of them? I watched the guy pull an illegal turn and drive away with his front bumper hanging off, so I hope I got at least his radiator or something!)

Anyhow, I’ve been “meaning to” get a Real People Car as a next step, but figured it would be after a few months of Trial Edition on my new life. That schedule got advanced, and I decided to keep it pain-free and go for the Amazon Prime car buying experience of using Carvana, after being recommended it by a few friends. I can definitely vouch for the painlessness of the process. Maybe I could have saved a thousand dollars or two by playing hardball with local dealers, but I was in no mood to (with Overhaul’s build going full-speed at the time), and figured if I can’t earn a few thousand dollars equivalent over a few years, again, maybe something wasn’t meant to be.

I decided that any Charles RPC I got had to replicate Mikuvan’s functions as much as possible. I was leaning towards a reasonably sized truck, like a Nissan Frontier or similar. But really after hashing out the things I regularly tote around, keeping it #vanlyfe made far more sense. I also have rented enough Grand Caravans to know that Stow-n-Go seating is a blessing from the automotive gods – in under 2 minutes I can convert #coronavan from 7-seater to a long-bed compact truck.  So here I am, having gone from rad to dad.

Anyhow, that’s the story of my life for the past 5 or so months – which is pretty insane to think about how much has changed since November. I even have trouble grasping it really today, and think it’ll take a lot longer to fully sink in.

where to go from here?

Honestly? I don’t really know!

It is truly a strange feeling now that it’s “happened” and I’m no longer in Boston and nearby MIT. I have plenty of friends and a reasonable network here in the area from high school and from friends that went to Georgia Tech. Atlanta isn’t a startup hub (yet) like the Northeast tech corridor or Silicon Valley, but it does have a healthy maker scene and several smaller startup and tech incubators, a few of which I’ve gotten to know during the course of my networking and introductions back in October.

I currently work at the Georgia Tech Research Institute, basically GT’s Lincoln Labs, in the UAV division working with several different projects. They are all well summed up by “Putting fancy hats on drones”.

Everything’s changed so much that I’ll probably take at least this couple of months to just level out and work on little things, maybe get back to my electronics side. I’d like to leverage having #Coronavan now to take Mikuvan offline for longer periods of time and address issues here and there that have gone neglected. Maybe even do its Vantruck-esque exterior restoration this coming summer or fall.

In the mean time, for all of you, brace for incoming Overhaul 3 content!