The Summer Build Season 2010: Super LOLrioKart and Chuckranoplan

It’s May 1st.

Besides marking the two week countdown until spring semester ends, it’s also when I get serious in thinking about what the goals for the summer build season are. Historically, the summer season has been spent preparing the robots for Dragon*Con in September. Now, robots are fun and all, but I think they have become routine. If nothing else, taking on a more in-depth project is just a means of self-improvement. Last summer, I also completed and refined LOLrioKart, which gave me a taste for larger-scale, more involved projects. Overcoming its inherent Course VI difficulties taught me a great deal of power electronics and controls knowledge. Before that, RazEr and its predecessors were built to explore electric motor theory and construction. Segfault was built is being built (It’s under about 50 pounds of other stuff, but it’s coming, I PROMISE) to explore digital feedback controllers. So, with every project, I try to do something new or out of the ordinary that I haven’t done before. In the past, this has been limited to trying out new robot designs, but with my increased resource access, I’ve been able to wander outside that domain.

With increased scope and complexity comes the tallest mountain of cruft to sort through – increased cost. As much as LOLrioKart was scrounged, cursory appraisal of all its materials and parts, not counting those that have been scrapped or replaced, approaches the $1000 mark. This isn’t even including the $600+ Briggs and Stratton ETEK motor, which you can’t even get any more, and which I loaned from a friend. Nor does it factor in the price of the batteries if they were purchased new, or really any of the support equipment.

I can’t exactly fund this kind of stuff with a part-time UROP, and scrounging only goes so far before I start rejecting the compromises I have to make in order to get something resembling the original plan through and realized.

Super LOLrioKart

So with this in mind, I applied to MIT’s Eloranta Summer Research Fellowship in the name of great justice being able to realize my latest and greatest bad idea. I have always been a vocal supporter of a student project  fund that undergraduates can apply to in order to get resources for the scientific or engineering initiatives of their own. The Eloranta grant seemed the closest fit to this ideal. And it was $6,000. That’s like, a 6 with 3 zeroes after it, or about how much money the Federal Government spends every 42 microseconds.

But wait, how the hell can I possibly make LOLrioKart any better? Isn’t it already on the cover of Engineers Gone Wild?

No, it isn’t. It’s an electric gokart that has bonus points for absurdity. But LK doesn’t really do anything new that anyone else with a DC motor can’t pull off. It was a great mental exercise for me when I built the differential, or 5 different iterations of the motor controller, but that’s about it. It doesn’t even have supercapacitor boost.

The original plan for Super LOLrioKart dates back as far as the LK build itself. The idea was to have four 16kW custom hub motors, for a total of 64kW of peak motor power and the ability to drag race Tesla Roadsters. The project was then known as LOLrioKart 64. If you think about it, the power to weigh ratio of a < 300 pound kart with 64kW of motor power is not exactly trivial. But 64,000 watts is almost 90 electric horsepower, and the controls for such power levels are not exactly trivial either. Knowing my luck with LK’s DC motor controller, I wasn’t about to test it on high powered 3 phase ones; and so LK64 was shelved before I had even modeled up a hub motor.

It took a little bit more work at the Media Lab before I latched onto my next idea. Let’s say that it’s the common solution point of a CityCar, a swerve drive, and a LOLrioKart. I had an agenda to pursue with this one – I had become tired of the fussy wireless joystick derived controller for the test car. Seriously, it’s a car. You’re supposed to drive it like a car, not like a flight simulator. I set out to design a better interface for the test cars, wireless or otherwise, which were based on real car controls – steering wheel, pedals, shifters, some buttons.

The idea still involved 4 hub motors, but they would be more vestigial and just provide a level of reasonable maneuverability for the vehicle. No, see, the real focus of Super LOLrioKart would have been the four independently steered wheel pods.

Inside each pod is a ~1.5kW hub motor driving the 10″ tires (same size that LK has now) and a stock 700-size motor gearbox that handles the steering. The whole assembly would pivot around the large center gear, which is fixed to the vehicle through the upper half of each wheel arm, only partially modeled here. Each pod was designed to be independent, having internal computation and motor drivers running both drive and steering in closed-loop mode, and would only need a power connection and a point of reference. The control topology itself would be fully a wireless star network based on XBEE radios, which are extremely popular in the DIY electronics world and well-documented. Because of the full 360 degree turning ability of each wheel, there was no way you could convince me to run signal cables to each controller. It was the next stage after drive-by-wire – drive-by-wireless.

And so I wrote a 15 page proposal exposing the control agenda and some of the engineering details of this vehicle, including a rough cost breakdown based on glances at parts prices, and “timeline mitigation factors” i.e. answers to the question “Why the hell would we believe that you can build a CAR in 3 months?”

I mean, I built this in like…. a day and a half. Does that count?

They didn’t.

Well, I guess I can find solace in the thought that maybe it was so awesome and over the top that it wrapped back around to the other end, and thus was denied. But actually not – I probably shouldn’t have mentioned the whole ‘shopping cart’ dealie, because that would have passively thrown it from the realm of research and development work – legit stuff to ask a few thousand dollars for – to me punting a summer away by building something epic.

Which, while I consider a fully legitimate reason, obviously a group of people I have never met could not be persuaded to believe. There is something to be said about my proposal-writing and persuasion abilities if that was the case. At any rate, design of SLK stopped on the same day. It was simply going to cost too much for me to think about pursuing without free money, at least at the time of last ponderance.

But would it actually? And what are the tradeoffs I would have to make? I went back and looked at the “first order bill of materials” I had put together in accordance with the recommended format.

Many lines out of that BOM were assumed “commercial purchases”. Stock parts, things I could make or find a friend to make, but would purchase just because I had the funds, in order to save time. The first thing to get cut was the 40Ah LiFePO4 battery. MIT EVT still has their stock of small format cells that I could tap or beg. SLK would a minimum of 48 volts and 20AH, an arrangement easily supplied by a 15S10P A123 array. Many other things were gross overestimates or rough SWAGs. I can’t even think of a way to spend $400 on driver controls. Even a Logitech Driving Force wheel only costs $150 and would be ideal with a little Arduino fiddling.

The $1,400 of motor controllers was estimated from looking at what options Kelly Controller has to offer. As far as I know, nobody even makes a 48 volt DC motor controller small enough to fit inside the wheel pod. So at least some of the controls would have to be custom – and it was a problem that I seeked an answer from someone who knows alot more about motor controllers than I care to think about.  Hopefully, it would be solvable for far less than $1,400 (but likely not that much less) and some programming. Oh god the programming.

I figured there was no way I was going to escape from the raw material cost since I’d need serious metal to build the wheel modules. Also, the sheer volume of NdFeB in the motors would not cause the cost to wander too far from $400 even if I used stock flat magnets. Practically all the big power electrical components I either already have or have access to, so the “Power bus” is negligible.

With adequate scrounging and borrowing, I could probably bring the out of pocket cost under $3,000, with strong tradeoffs in commercially made parts towards DIY and fabrication. This would probably then break the project out of its summer-only timeline, too. On top of that, summer housing and living expenses take #1 priority, since exercising shopping cart absurdism is a little too close to being a hobo than I feel comfortable with.  It’s still financially unreasonable.

It’s a project that I think has the right about of Incremental Epicness given last summer’s work, which is why I haven’t dropped the idea completely. And the agenda – of course, the agenda.You don’t need joysticks to control an omnidirectional car, and I’m want to prove it.

But at the same time, I thought that perhaps I should just start on a different path completely, something that doesn’t require expensive power electronics and wireless embedded networks and lithium batteries.


I don’t even know where this one came from.

Actually, I don’t know where any of my project ideas come from, but this one has to take the rosin cake with regards to sheer impulsiveness. It was probably after I watched a Youtube video from the Related Videos sidebar after surfing through several layers thereof. Or it might have been when someone linked me to an epic photo journal featuring decaying Soviet military hardware. It might have been the History Channel.  Whatever the cause, I had a spontaneous MUST BUILD moment and immediately began researching the history of ekranoplans (The best resource for GEVs I have found so far is The WIG Page.)

Wikipedia could explain it better than I ever can, but the gist of it is that an ekranoplan is a cross between a flying boat and a seaplane. They exploit the amplified pressure difference across an airfoil when said airfoil is traveling close to another surface, like the ground. As a result, they can lift much more weight than a comparable conventional aircraft, and consequently increase fuel efficiency. They travel far quicker than any ship can, but can use ship-specific infrastructure such as existing ports. You kind of wonder why the world isn’t already crawling with these, especially given that they fly lower than the average volcanic ash cloud.

I suspect it has to do with the fact that the vast majority of ekranoplan & GEV development took place as part of Soviet military projects, and the Soviet military just loves giving out secrets. But they were truly all over that shit. If you didn’t know there was at one point in time a 400 ton flying boat-plane (bloat? ploat? blane?) that could travel at 350 miles per hour and launch nuclear missiles… well, you do now.

The advantages of GEVs seem to dimish quickly as the vehicle size goes down. Air is much denser at sea level, so more power is needed to push the same craft through it – all forms of drag are relatively larger. Small craft are even more susceptible to waves and water surface irregularities, not to mention the occasional heavy breeze. Their small wing size means the benefits of ground effect are less pronounced. So there’s essentially no advantage of building small, recreational, civilian ekranoplans except for the fact that they are awesome

This is where I hopefully come in.

Problem: I do not have any Aero/Astro experience. I have logged a few flight simulator hours using a keyboard, and the longest I have kept a human-operated craft in the air was approximate 20 seconds. Thankfully it was a small, foam model.

Solution: I  have plenty of friends who do, or are other wise insane enough to try. The incremental insanity is key in such a project.

Chuckranoplan is in the very earliest stages of research, feasibility study, and development. Very few details are pinned down because I don’t know how to pin them down properly. There aren’t that many resources about ekranoplan construction and design, nor is there (as I have been informed) even a complete knowledge corpus about how ground effect actually works.

I am therefore divided between approaching Chuckranoplan as a scientific, methodical learning experience where I research and design all I can beforehand, in the interest of cultivating academic interest in this field… or just building one and seeing what happens.

I strongly prefer the latter.

Things I do know about Chuckranoplan are limited to the following:

  • It will not be called Chuckranoplan
  • It will have 8 propulsion sources, c.f. Lun and KM
  • It will be electric.
  • It will have a conventional ekranoplan layout, as opposed to a tandem or delta wing
  • It will be based upon an existing watercraft hull under 16 feet in length

Any of the above criteria are subject to change if I decide later that it is complete nonsense. For instance, an ekranoplan (i.e. T-tail, low wing, front engine) configuration is not self-stabilizing. I might find that it’s impossible to fit enough batteries onboard to fly more than 10 minutes at a time. Or that an engine on a stick is the best compromise solution.

I  do want to aim for a fully electric craft because it’s more accessible and easier to implement, and less complex than maintaining 8 internal combustion engines of any type. I’m enamored by the KM and Lun because of the glorious military-industrial overkill, so I’m determined to have 8 sources of thrust. Otherwise, the design is (…) up in the air. I didn’t say this was going to be practical or even reasonable, after all.

Out of curiosity, I’ve ordered a standard 10 inch industrial fan and plan on mating it to a giant outrunner to create a sort of hybrid, mutant ducted fan. I plan to measure the thrust that this arrangement can provide.  If nothing else, it can end up as a propulsion source for my bike or something.

I’ve toyed with the thought of fly-by-wireless in the same manner as controlling the wheel pods of Super LOLrioKart. The airfoils would have control surfaces with internal actuators, probably just large-scale R/C servos, with each control receiving its own radio and computation as a module. The arrangement would again be a star network with the center node being the flight deck(/bridge/whatever) with a set of conventional aircraft controls being processed by software… wait, did I say that this project won’t need expensive power electronics and wireless embedded networks and lithium batteries?!

The summer is a perfect time to embark on an water project because it’s the only time of year when Boston isn’t ballfreezingly cold. Additionally, there’s this half-mile wide expanse of river right outside my window.

Hell, it even has my name on it.


I have the choice of either building a complicated electromechanical multi-DOF system that is likely prone to failure, or a complicated electromechanical multi-DOF system that is likely prone to failure. Which one should I pursue?

3 thoughts on “The Summer Build Season 2010: Super LOLrioKart and Chuckranoplan”

  1. That pretty much sucks. Perhaps if you removed the circuitry entirely and replaced it with a Magic Smoke conduit?

    On a more serious note though, i’ve got to believe that there are other grant organizations that would be interested in the research on wheelpods this would put out. And of course, as a recourse of last resort you could always *replace* the cart with a frame which curiously has the same mount-point locations.

  2. Hey, I am always impressed with your site and your projects, it helps motivate me to get out in the garage and build something. A friend gave me an old ’06 copy of solid works, I know nothing about it, but I have seen some very nice Solidworks drawings on your pages, can you recommend any good sites, or tutorials, books, whatever that will get me started off on the right foot? Preferably free, or cheap as I am a broke student :) I would love to learn how to use this as a another friend has a 100w cnc laser, and waterjet in his shop. Thanks! Patrick

  3. Hello Patrick. Solidworks has very good tutorials for a CAD program, at least that I have found. I did take a 1 day class on the basics when I learned Autodesk Inventor, but that wasn’t anything its tutorial didn’t cover. Otherwise, I picked up Inventor essentially by clicking around, and searching for the technique I want to learn if I got stuck, e.g. “make an adaptive spring in autodesk inventor”.

    It’s good to see that someone else finds this site useful besides myself (when I forget what I did on some project that I need to repeat…).

    If your friend has such resources, you are in much better shape than I was when I started building things. You can do alot with a WJ…

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