Motorama 2022: Susquehanna Boxcar and Justice for Vantruck

On a somewhat rainy Thursday evening before the weekend of Motorama, after Susquehanna Boxcar was all put together, I began loading my Pelican cases decade-old Harbor Freight aluminum suitcases (who can afford Pelican cases??) of robot gear into Coronavan so everything was ready to hit the road in the morning. The plan was to get there over the course of Friday and unload everything so I don’t need to rush on Saturday morning, and maybe help with some setup as well.

Friday morning, I woke up and pulled everything out of it… because shit’s about to go down.

That’s it, we’re doing this now.

The last time I tried to have you do something useful, you randomly broke down on I-81 in Virginia. Vantruck had not wandered north of the Mason Dixon since the very last week of 2019. Of course, after replacing the fuel injectors and harness inside the FiTech throttle body unit, it’s been just fine for everything I’ve had it do, including pulling Murdervan, Snekvan, and several jeeps back home.

Still billowing blue smoke and missing a cylinder, but what else is new. We’re just going to dive right into this after an inspection of fluids, belts, whistles, and dingles.

But before that, over the course of the week, I was making Motorama trophies! I took on this responsibility after the original maker had Personal Problems come up. They were going to be laser cut and engraved. It just so happened in the months prior to this that I had picked up a 18×18 75W laser cutter on the cheap.

As with everything else lately, I owe a post on the process of getting that junker up and running again with replacing the tube, squaring the gantry, and so on. But, trophies.

I made a few test cuts in different colors of acrylic I had hanging around, then had the organizer order a few sheets to me through McMaster. Design three was what we ended up going with, though I personally prefer the clear plastic. The stands were already made, so I just had to supply the display panels.

asslaser69 (as it’s named in the print driver selection box) handled this first major job exceedingly well. Before this week, it had only cut random little trinkets as tests. To prepare, I bought a hydroponic weed growing aeration pump as the forced air blast source and it was running an aquarium pump submerged in a 5 gallon car wash bucket.

Look, all the pieces are there. Even if they’re wrong.

One of the upgrades I want to do eventually is a long-focus (100mm) lens and a gas lens, so it can get through some thicker stuff. It’s honestly just fine right now for basically everything you’d use a CO2 laser cutter for, but muh scope creep.

Of course, when you let me make visual products, you are going to have shit like this be part of it.

Common rule of thumb for being my co-worker: If you know, you know. If you don’t know, don’t Google it. Especially not on the lab’s network.

With Vantruck given the green light and my Extremely Large Miku print strapped in the back seat, it was time to ship off northward!

immediate regret

The journey was uneventful (good… misbehave and the methy junk man will come for you), and it was quite pleasant to be heading to a familiar haunt of mine. Motorama had been canceled for 2021, and I wasn’t in any position to turn around a trip back in 2020. I romance the I-81 corridor a little in my personal make-believe TVTropes page in my head, but it does form an axis between me and the friends and adventures I left behind up north.

It would be nice for it to hurt a little less though.

Just a little bit less, please.

Remember, this was the weekend before Russia really lit off World War III. Gas, while post-economic reopening expensive, wasn’t Summer of 2022 tier expensive. I can’t imagine making this trip at all if it was even a month later.

12 hours after leaving, I rolled into the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex. Not a peep along the way, though the oil usage was on the order of 1/2 quart or so (Hard to tell if it’s just that I didn’t give it an hour or so to meet back at the bottom).

This should be more of a 9-10 hour trip (having made the run to Norwalk using the same route a few times) but Vantruck’s preferred speed is more 65mph instead of the 85mph+ I keep trying to pull with Coronavan.

I unloaded everything and went around to help set up the arena and said hello to everyone. But, before I could leave, I had to attend to a Vantruck thing:

It just wouldn’t be a van trip without me fixing something in the parking lot somewhere. On the way in the gates, a security guard let me know that my right side brake light was out. Odd, since I hadn’t noticed the turn signal blinker acting up. It turns out the running light filament was out, so the turn signals using the main filament would still be good. I did manage to break the bulb apart while extracting it from the socket, though.

In a stroke of … well, typical luck, someone at the event just had a few 3157 bulbs sitting in their car, and at a robot event we all have pliers and grabby tools of some sort, so this was otherwise a fast repair. Makes me wonder how long it’s been out – it was dark at least since northern Virginia, and I don’t hit the brakes on the highway. Vantrucks do not have to follow laws.

And that, kids, is how I found myself holding an inflated 6S lithium battery pack, standing in a Waffle House in Harrisburg, PA.

It’s the next morning and time to get serious. Everyone’s here now and going through inspection and testing!

Been a good long time since I’ve seen any of the bots or the builders. This is “Starfather”, a 30lber from the P1 team and the larger version of “Starchild” which is right next to it. It won’t be the last time I see this thing either.

One thing I can appreciate is that Norwalk’s multiple tournaments per year, all full-contact in nature, has really pushed the evolution of the 3lb through 30lb classes. Designs were on point this Motorama. A lot of bots were very clean and professional looking, some from builders that were just starting out with their first kitbots or 3D printed 3lbers in 2019 when NHRL really kicked off.

A small 12 pound tribute to Poison Arrow.

The rise of more on-demand machining services in the past few years has really let robot builders leverage the competitive pressure and creative use of materials/processes. It’s way easier to achieve robots that “look like a thing” nowadays – 5-10 years ago I could easily see this being a square aluminum bar frame, for example.

A Sportsman class flipper with some serious machine and welding work on it.

Hell, even bots that are “traditionally built” are on point nowadays. This thing – appropriately named Pipe Bomb – is a full body drum spinner with mostly 3D printed internals but hand-cut UHMW plastic wheels and endcaps. The giant ring bearings supporting the drum had all the grease washed out of them and replaced with some light oil for less drag. It spent much of the tournament sideways trapped on its wheel faces, but took an absolute beating and kept running.

This ultra-stanced conical wheel drive flipper named Pigeon was interesting. It let the bot be very low sloped on the sides without compromising wheel track spacing and wheelbase.

Some high quality machine work coming out of Wedge Industries (who has since stopped machining things in order to machine more epic things) this is Crunch Time, a scaled down tribute to Quantum/Spectre from Battlebots and King of Bots.

It turns out when your load case is that of a skull, it’ll generate you a skull

– alex, maybe

Told you this wasn’t the last time you’d see Starfather. It turns out that’s my first match. The only top-attack robot in the bracket and I somehow drew it, with the robot that has the most exposed shit going on up top. For giggles, I obtained a Brandon Sign from the dealer hall (this is a rural motorsports event, there is plenty of Brandon Signage) and bolted it to the Multishovel to give Brandon Zalinsky, the builder/driver, something to think about.

Well there wasn’t much thinking he had to do, because it didn’t end well for Susquehanna Boxcar. Starfather pretty much nuked everything on top. I left the arena functional, but with one dysfunctional motor and more possibly smoked, but still moving.

The weapon got in a direct hit on the pokey stick shaft, which is hollow and so folded like a lawn chair. It also nicked the sprocket and bent it sideways. This bend was unable to get straightened out and compressed again to to the point where the chain could wrap around it, so it was eventually cut out.

Starfather’s weapon also put some clean gashes into the Multishovel. Amazingly, it did not break off its mount, but just backed the locking collar off its thread.

The most important damage was to the drive motor, where it cleaved through the UHMW mount and completely broke (and bent) the motor. I only had 1 spare 555 mild-wound motor with me, and it was going to replace this one. The other three motors all smelled kind of interesting too, so they were not long for the world.

My next matchup was against Pigeon – the ultra-stanced face-wheel drive flipper seen above. This was a pushing match that I could not win, so I just drove around to the best of Boxcar’s ability. No damage sustained in this fight, but between the 4 drive motors I think I had 2.5 left by the end.

The next day, I stopped by the local Asian grocery tore to pick up some snacks and a new weapon for it since I was planning to enter as many rumbles as I could:

Nicknamed “Danger Potato”, it was a taro root that we impaled on the end of one of the pokey-sticks and wrapped in caution tape to prevent it from coming apart.

Danger Potato in action in the 30lb rumble (Starting at 04:38:40 or thereabouts, if the time link doesn’t work). I basically ran around like a dumbass until the motors all smoked, and then just sort of flailed around.

So what lessons have I learned from Susquehanna Boxcar? Nothing. It served its purpose beautifully: Be basically free to build and be an entertaining meme. The mild-wound 550 printer motors were a bit of a wash, but I knew that going in. I’ll definitely just change them to some equivalently-powered brushless motors and bring it back next year. The top side could use some work, but hey, it’s all stuff I found in piles in the garage. The drivetrain itself took no damage, nor did the internals beyond the chunk taken out by Starfather.

This was a nice break from van-related work and reminded me that robots can still be fun. Between BattleBots and having to take myself seriously, and NHRL’s focus on the prize, robots have more and more seemed like a chore as of late. Honestly, besides this coming BattleBots 2022 season, I think I’ll only stick to Sportsman-ish events like Motorama 30lbers and Dragon Con from here on.

After everything was wrapped up and done, I was presented with a prize for Vantruck. The Jeep Bros that I keep fetching wreckage in Alabama sheds for found this pickup truck roof wing at an estate auction. I’ve been looking for something like this for a good while since buying new ones is expensive, and mildly considered building my own.

Largely just to completely The Look – it’s not like I will ever regularly tow a Portable Convention Center & Hotel which could use a forward-mounted wind deflector.

Of course, it wasn’t time to go home quite yet. In another “This isn’t a van trip without fixing something in the parking lot”, early on Sunday morning I went to pick up a part that I suspected was giving me some trouble on the way up, and definitely confirmed it once I arrived.

That’s the mechanical, viscous-coupling fan clutch at the front of the engine. I began to suspect it had seized up because during the trip northward, as temperatures fell, I noticed the coolant temperature never going above 150-160 degrees, dropping some times as low as 145 degrees.

140 degrees is the threshold for the FiTech control unit going back into warmup mode. The fuel mixture became richer, and my gas mileage dipped to even more horrifying levels. If the fan clutch seizes, then the engine fan will always be turning and therefore overcooling significantly in the cold winter night air at highway speed.

This was a quick enough fix, and I could reach in behind the radiator to undo the fan hub nuts, then unbolt the fan from the clutch.

I finished this in about 15 minutes in the Motorama back parking lot, and as you’d expect of a gearhead motorsports event, about a dozen people stopped by to ask if I needed help or supplies. I’m sure I’m far from the only one trying to resuscitate a patient on the ground here. After installation, I caught up with some people for dinner and started bombing it southbound…

Only to encounter more pain I stopped for the night near Roanoke, VA and continued Monday morning on a little detour.

Alright, I’m conveniently positioned to cross the Blue Ridge and Smokies at some point, and somebody hasn’t been back here since Dragon Con 2019. So we know what this means…

It was a very quiet morning on the Tail of the Dragon. Being in the middle of winter, the resorts were all shut down and the photographers were not out in force (though you can still beckon and commission them for a fee, ahead of time, if you so desired), and I took my time with the mountain crossing.

In all, the trip was completely reasonable (for me, anyway – reasonable implies at least one or two wrenching oopsie moments are designed in from the start) and it was a good way to recast a hobby that had, in recent days, felt more like an unpaid internship *ahem* Battlebots than bashing it up with friends and onlookers.

From my return, I focused more on getting the 7.3 IDI engine from Snekvan rebuilt; it had already been extracted from the van by New Year’s Day 2022 and I was halfway into tearing it all apart. I had an eye for getting Vantruck swapped and ready for Dragon Con 2022; this also means I’m like 11 Operation IDIocracy posts behind.

The Makening of the Susquehanna Boxcar

It’s the middle of January, it’s still too damn cold for me anyway and all I do is stay inside and die on the couch once I get back from the lab – but Motorama is but weeks away and I don’t have a robot yet. I had one designed, I mean… but that’s not very meaningful. So let’s begin building the thing already!

Susquehanna Boxcar was meant to be very simple and crude by the standards of things I used to build here. It turns out owning your own tools is expensive. Crazy, right? I made this realization as of late, that my projects here will probably be less showy from an engineering perspective and more functional and piecemeal. While lots of machining services are available now that weren’t a decade ago, like Xometry and SendCutSend/OSHcut, as well as my numerous Chinese machining contacts… well…. they cost money. UGH.

If there is one thing I enjoy less than designing things correctly like a real engineer it’s spending money to do it.

It doesn’t help that as of a few weeks ago from time of press, my Autodesk Inventor “student” “version” has finally reached the end of the road. Autodesk started requiring you to verify your identity with a 3rd party company, in order to determine eligibility for free pizza. That’s something I absolutely refused to do on principle, and so I let my license lie fallow.

It’s not like I can’t CAD – through the lab I have just about every computer aided whatever I can possibly use, but again, it’s more of the principle of the matter. If I NEEDED to CAD something, I can pop open Solidworks or CREO. But I think I’ll start moving onto “free as in dom” software like FreeCAD. The story is much the same with Eagle, now that it’s owned by Autodesk as well – KiCAD was something I messed with years ago when it still required a full unmaintained neckbeard and stained trilby to use, but it’s gotten far more integrated UI and UX wise. We’ll see how my need evolves on this front.

Anyhow, enough philosophy. I’m not mad at all for having milked 16 years of Autodesk Inventor student editions, just mad they found out and I don’t know the CEO well enough to bug him in his DMs.

We’ll begin by sectioning the 3″ width C-channel and marking out places to drill the frame holes. I also needed to make a U-shaped cutout in the center of one of them, for the eventual poker stick weapon.

If The Benchmaster, Master of Benches were a bit larger, I’d set it up on there. I decided to just get creative with a bandsaw and a Dremel wheel instead.

I just cut partially through the C-channel with my horizontal bandsaw and knocked the horizontal cut line out with an abrasive cutoff wheel.

Front and rear frame sections now prepared and also briefly hit with an abrasive flap wheel for future welding.

The squishy center is made of 1″ thick UHMW barstock. I’ve owned this 1.5″ Forstner-ish bit for a while, inherited from one of the tool chests I bought which was full of original content. Not sure what it actually is, but it does make flat bottomed holes.

The intention is to use it to make a socket to fit the 555 motors. I took an off-cut UHMW piece to try and test drive the process and set the depth I want using the drill press feed stops.

The result of this test drill is seen behind the mockup frame. The 555 motor will stuff into the hole left by the 1.5″ drill if I wiggle the drill a little to make it slightly sloppy.

This frame mockup was just to make sure everything is (basically…) the length it has to be. Yes, one of those tubes was cut 1/8″ too short. No, I refuse to buy another segment. I instead cut a sliver off a spare chunk (seen to the left of the image) and will weld right over it. Fight me.

This 3d-printed jig will locate the drive gear mate. Using 24 pitch gears afforded me a few thousandths of an inch of slop space, but I still wouldn’t want to use it if I didn’t have to. Using the axle as a pin mate and the edge of the UHMW bar as a tangent touch-off (using a dowel pin), I was able to locate the motor’s mounting hole and its bolt circle with a 1/8″ pilot drill. Then I took the piece over to the drill press for the 1.5″ bore.

Frame rails and the lifter tower are done!

I used the center frame rails as part of the welding setup to make some initial tacks, before removing them and going crazy.

Here’s the outer frame all welded up. Limewelder has been a beast on 240 volts and did all of this cleanly with no issues.

So I wanted to bridge the cutout in the front C-channel because that’s a weak spot just begging to be bent. I reached for a piece of 1/4″ x 1″ steel bar, but my attention was diverted by the Calligator on the table.

See, Calligator is a meme over at SendCutSend. Designed by one of the other Northeast robot folks, it was legendary for crashing the SCS quoting engine before they fixed it. As a result, hundreds if not thousands of Calligators are running around the country as a result of testing, debugging, and free meme gifts used to fill leftover space on plates. I happen to own one, and it was the perfect touch to this piece of pre-destined garbage.

I cut his legs off a little in order to keep him under the level of the cutout. This Calligator is 304 stainless steel, and so I busted out my 309 alloy wire that was previously used to make van exhausts to join it to the regular carbon steel behind it. This wire flows a lot differently, so the welds came out a bit blobbier and chunker than I wanted.

Whatever, the green pukey paint will make it go away. This is apparently called “Detroit Diesel Green”, and was the result of going to Autozone and asking their employees for the ugliest color touch-up paint they carry in the body shop aisle.

For some reason, everybody there – plus friends I sent an image of the paint shelf to – all gravitated towards this color.

It is a very proper color – very “Susquehanna Boxcar“. Definitely the color you’d rattle-bomb an old factory machine in to cover up the loss of your regional manufacturing economy.

The lifter hub was made exactly as I did for Sadbot itself – by welding a piece of tube to a sprocket. The sprocket is a #25, and I’d have preferred a #35, but something about no spending money. I only had #25 sprockets in the bucket that had small and large sizes available.

Here’s the finished lifter hub with a Delrin bushing stuffed through it. Also shown is the hollow 5/8″ 4130 tubing lift shaft. As I said before, I expect this to get bent up very quickly – it’s far too skinny for what I want to put in a 30lber. Remember, 30haul used 3/4″ steel and Uberclocker up to 1 inch solid aluminum. But no spending money.

The matching sprocket for the lift motor was one of those motor sprockets often found pinned into a scooter motor. I removed it for Overhaul 1 restoration purposes, and luckily, its bore was just the right size to slam a 3/8″-24 tap through and just Loctite onto the drill motor shaft.

A part I generated on the fly and had to retroactively CAD was the drill motor’s extension shaft. This has one end threaded to jam against the sprocket; see the wrench flats on it for tightening it them up. The other end lives in the opposing side UHMW frame rail, and down the center is a hole with an internal shoulder for the reverse-threaded locking screw. Additionally, note the clearance cut I made on the lift hub to the steel tube. This turned out to be needed for the width of the chain.

The majority of steel tubing have a weld seam on the inside, so it had to be removed before I could install 1 x 1 inch square accessories. I did this by just plunging a long-cut endmill slightly into the wall of the tubing.

And a quick test with 1×1″ tubing on my stock rack…

I hand marked and drilled the holes for the drill motor’s mounting plate and went back to some good ol’ follow the marked line to make the rectangular cutout for the nosecone area. The Benchmaster, Master of Benches is fairly easy to count wheel ticks and handle turns on, but for things where NOTHING MATTERS, it’s still easier to drive by sight.

Now we’re getting what looks like the center of a robot together. You can imagine the drill motor would be extremely flexible hanging so far out of the frame rail like that if it didn’t have an extension shaft to the other side.

Drivetrain test fit time! All of these gears went together without incident.

The pinions are 9-tooth “pinion wire” stock I had from something. I assume it was a Roll Cake purchase way back when, but that is what drove the drivetrain design. I drilled and reamed the hole using Tinylathe to “3mm minus 0.0005 inch” which is a real size of reamer they sell – 0.1176″

Hell I could probably go fight this thing as-is in the 12lber class. The Boxcar is really just a 12lber wearing an enormous steel hat.

As the thing neared mechanical completion, I started keeping track of weight to forecast what kind of weapon I can even put on it.

While some of this fab was going on, I had my New-to-Me junkyard Ender 3v2 punching out the electronics mounting facilities like the battery tray and ESC mount.

Wiring the bot was very straightforward. Nothing particularly interesting here, just 3.5mm bullet connectors. The 18650 cells are, as I mentioned, from a deconstituted Milwaukee M18 knockoff battery. They’re generic 2500mAh cells. For this application they’ll be just fine.

“What’s worth buying is worth buying 10 at once” -me, probably

(Those brick packs in the Hobbyking heat shrink are also knocked-down Milwaukee knock-off packs)

All of the relevant electronics are kept in the pink suitcase. The Ragebridges face each other the receiver is adhered between them.

I closed up the battery packs using good ol’ Mountain Dew bottles. In fact, I had to buy Mountain Dew to drink it and use the bottles. I guess that meant I spent money on the robot.

Electronics bay mounting is taken care of by these strips of 1/8″ thick G-10 Garolite, one of my go-to materials. The bolt heads seen are 3/8″ flanged head self-tapping screws from mounting Vantruck’s fittings back on after the restoration. Every big frame screw on this bot is actually a lag bolt or self-tapper.

After the commissioning of electronics, it was time to find out how much weight I had left over for the funny things. Honestly, 3.5 pounds? Not bad!

The poker was to be a crowbar that Murdervan spawned out of one of its door pockets. Yeah, that thing spawned a Half Life style crowbar and a folding knife.

The shank of this crowbar was conveniently 7/8″ or so. This meant I could just machine out a 1″ OD steel tube very slightly and smash it on there in order to fit in the lift hub.

And that’s what I did. I installed the sleeve and drilled through everything for the locking screw in the socket.

I decided to turn both ends into potential weapons. There’s nothing really useful about the hook-end one as is, but maybe we’ll think of something at the event.

And now, the “Don’t talk to me or my son ever again” shot.

Driving video here and here. It drove “Alright, I guess”. Not as sharp as a proper higher-reduction gearbox, and kind of hub-motor like. The motors are definitely underpowered (being injket carriage motors and all) and it won’t be happy with a pushing match, but it’ll do.

As a final touch, I added some “car markings” to further sell that this is a railroad reference and not a Regular Car Reviews in-joke.

The Harbor Freight Multi-shovel

On a work-related trip the week before Motorama 2022, I happened to visit the local Harbor Freight and discovered they had an interesting new implement.

I called it a “multishovel” but it seems to be an entrenching tool or E-tool, another new trendy must-have in the world of quasi-military cosplaying off-road survivalist Jeep bros. I decided it was perfect as a robot weapon.

Making this adapter was very easy. The backbone of the multishovel is a 22mm x 15mm (or so) rectangular steel tube stamping. I just carved out a rectangle into a 1×1 inch square steel tube, to accommodate the 22mm length dimension (about 7/8″) and used the existing conveniently-placed cross hole in the multishovel.

And that is the story of how Susquehanna Boxcar got its Harbor Freight Multishovel.

It was a few days before Motorama now, and I was on a quest for redemption.