Major Project: Hexacopter Drone

(The fifth in our student blog series, written by Sam in 11th Grade, is followed by the teacher’s two updates on the project, so please read all the way down! Flight tests were finally successful, as students and teacher alike learned the hard realities of “going back to the drawing board!”)

While we don’t plan on taking him to the sun, Icarus was the name we selected for our massive hexacopter drone. With a 31-inch diameter, and the theoretical ability to lift almost two pounds on top of its own five-pound weight, it is operating at the higher end of recreational drone constraints. Most commercially available drones today feature only four propellers, and a mass of around one pound.

Early sketches of the design, with design priorities listed on the side

When we were designing “Thiccarus” we decided to push the boundaries with the materials we had available. A hexacopter design, as opposed to a more common quadcopter (a standard recreational design with four propellers), gave us more lift power and stability with a trade off on speed and maneuverability. To reduce weight and maintain strength Thiccarus would be constructed with 3D printed body parts and carbon fiber struts connecting them. However, when we were brainstorming, we decided that our drone’s primary function would be cargo delivery (despite my suggestions to make it into a fishing drone or a laser-toting drone with a search and destroy mission).

Pedro, Nolan, and Joshua tear apart
old quadcopter drones from two years
ago–fare thee well!

We came up with our design, then our constraints and requirements. After this, we split into design teams, each headed by ”captains.” After the protective shrouds around each propeller and control center base were decided upon, we set to starting a joint Onshape project. Onshape is our 3D design platform of choice for this project. Each team member was assigned one component of Thiccarus to design, and it came together well in a collaborative fashion. Each member of the design team is able to see in real time how their part will integrate with the other parts, which is incredibly helpful.

The eight students work concurrently on the drone CAD model,
with each one instantly able to see how their component fits into
the broader scope

The hexacopter design emerges!

The largest and most difficult piece to print: the central electronics
platform; five or six attempts at printing were required

Icarus is currently in the printing stage, and when it is fully constructed, it will be mounted with two cameras feeding to a battery powered LCD screen. Steered by the controller, it will be capable of flying high and low to deliver small payloads.

(Sam’s article was written in early October. After a delay in printing production due to some technical difficulties, the entire drone was finally fully assembled and taken for some early test flights. And now the update—which gets a little technical…)
After many hours of printing and assembly…

Sam, Ben, and Todd carefully attach
the motors and batteries and other
electronic components

The 8th Period engineering class proudly marched their huge drone out to the Providence soccer pitch. Gentle (and safe!) power-ups in the classroom had proved troublesome, with erratic behavior being immediately apparent. The drone was very touchy, and tended to spin around and roll to one side. Cutting the throttle from even six inches of altitude caused the aircraft to fall with a ungraceful “thump”, with small 3D-printed pieces occasionally breaking off.

Alena gave an insightful suggestion that we could take it outside and stretch out a big sheet of fabric to catch the drone as it fell. This would allow us to try to gain more altitude—and more time to evaluate its behavior and get it under manual control. The soft fall into the fabric would certainly keep both drone and students completely safe! As an added bonus, we would look comically like cartoon fire-fighters.

The group heads outside to try an initial flight: safety goggles on!

And look like cartoon fire-fighters we did! The plan worked rather well, except for Ben slipping accidentally in a mud patch on the field in his zeal for saving the drone. With the extra flight altitude and time, we learned that the machine wanted to spin on its vertical axis—absolutely out of control. Where it should have lifted gingerly into the air and hovered obediently, it was a veritable whirling dervish, and the group could not even agree on their recollection of whether it had spun clockwise or counter-clockwise!

It may look like the class is flinging it into the air—we promise
it is actually flying!

In a typical situation like this, the pilot should be able to add in some “yaw” trim. This means that the controller is set to always provide a little bit extra of yaw control, intended to counteract whatever is naturally happening and make everything balance out again. But adding yaw trim in either direction just didn’t change anything, and after one particularly wild spin the drone fell outside of the fabric and broke one of its 3D-printed propeller shrouds.

See that tilt to one side? About three seconds later Thiccarus
successfully escaped our circle of friendship!
Back to the drawing board…

  1. It is possible that the flight controller—the 1-inch small box that houses gyroscopes and inputs and outputs and magnetometers and so on—is just misbehaving or badly calibrated. But after several recalibrations and trying an alternate one that we had in stock, there was no improvement. Check.
  2. Is Thiccarus just way too “thicc”? Maybe. We could have designed more aggressively, and perhaps brought him down to 2 kg even (4.4 lb). But the specs say that each motor should be able to create up to 550 grams of thrust. With six motors in total, that’s 3.3 kg of thrust available (7.3 lb). And it’s definitely getting off the ground, even with the thrust output turned down for safety. So: check.
  3. It is possible that one or more motors are just misbehaving or getting bad signals. Tiny, threadlike wires carry the commands between the different components, and we have run into problems of this nature before. But replacing one bad cable fixed that, and simple individual motor bench tests show snappy, responsive motors that will blow your papers away from across the room.

When all else fails, Google it. Apparently, when your drone experiences untrimmable yaw, it is likely the result of not having set all motors perfectly level. In other words, one or more propellers might not be perfectly flat relative to the ground, but tilted slightly to one side. And yes, this is quite noticeable on poor old Thiccarus once you look for it. Fortunately, it can be easily solved by readjusting the four screws that hold each motor down, and putting a little “shim” on one side to nudge it up to level.

This is actually an interesting application of standard high school trigonometry. If a thrust vector is pointing straight up to sky, well and good. This is what the flight controller is banking on for its power distribution calculations. But if a motor is tipped to one side by even two or three degrees (barely perceptible to the eye), the aircraft will experience a mysterious lateral force equal to the thrust times the sine of the angle. If the motor is generating a healthy 500 grams of thrust (a little over a pound), three degrees of tilt creates 26 grams of sideways thrust (500sin3°). Small but significant—and the flight controller is not accounting for it.

Maddening: yes. Fixable: absolutely. The motors will be checked and adjusted, and Thiccarus will be bandaged up and flown again. It is also very likely that a Mark II design will surface in the second semester, with higher tolerances for motor angles accounted for from the very beginning and a lighter airframe. Less airframe weight means longer flight times, a more responsive drone, and a greater possible payload.

Providence Engineering Academy: carry on!

(Our final update for this story on the 19th of November.  Spoiler alert: it’s a happy ending!)


As promised, the motors were checked and adjusted. Ben and Mr. Meadth stayed after school and carefully placed pieces of card under this or that side of the motors to shim them up, bringing them as close as possible to vertical. Three motors were in need of adjustment, but none of them were out of line by more than about two or three degrees.

The drone was powered up, with high hopes… but the end result was exactly the same. Thiccarus wanted to flip over to the side and rotate faster and faster, and nothing could persuade him otherwise. Forget flying too close to the sun—Thiccarus couldn’t even get off the ground!

And then…

And then

Mr. Meadth had his flash of inspiration, and it all came down to this image:

The source of all problems.

This diagram shows the initial wiring and setup instructions from the flight controller. A certain teacher thought he had carefully followed the diagram; unfortunately, he had set the actual propeller directions all opposite. For example, propeller 1 was supposed to be rotating clockwise, but it had been set up to be counter-clockwise.

What’s the big deal, you ask? Well, while having everything opposite would still be balanced to some degree, the flight controller uses the spinning propellers to control its yaw. Say the craft wants to yaw to the left, it chooses a propeller to spin faster to the right (like propeller 1), and Newton’s Law of Reactions takes over. If it wants to yaw to the right, it might choose a left-spinning propeller to do that (like propeller 2). But since each and every one was backwards, the corrective actions it tried to take were in every case making the situation worse. If it started drifting left, it would end up spinning more left—a classic vicious circle if ever there was one.

A quick click of a checkbox in the computer and that was solved. All propellers: backwards. Oops.

Propellers… spinning the correct way!

You know you’re doing something
right when you’re looking at the bottom
of the drone

This portable outdoor screen receives
video input from two onboard cameras

Today marks another successful series of flights. We currently get about ten minutes of air time with two fully charged batteries. Three students plus teacher have been brave enough to fly around a little bit. No major accidents—perhaps a leg snapping off here or there with a rough landing!

Lessons learned:

  1. Persistence pays off. If this is a thing that can be done, then you can do it. Just get out there and keep troubleshooting until you work it out.
  2. This is a new era of high school education. To collaborate on a CAD model, 3D print it, order the electronics, and create a hovering 2.2 kg monstrosity in the space of three months is just not something a school could have done in-house ten years ago. Truly these are amazing times!
  3. These students are capable. With the right leadership and direction, they know how to think and problem solve and calculate and design. They will go far.
The story ends here, but keep an eye out for Mark II! We just can’t resist. There are already so many things that could be optimized (chiefly, stronger airframe and lighter weight). Lighter weight means more air time, so bring it on! Look out for Son of Thiccarus in the second semester, and until then, stay posted.

Collaboration with the Physical Education Department

(The fourth in our student blog series comes from Nolan in 11th Grade, and gives the final update on a project that was begun last year.)

Last year, the focus of the Advanced Engineering I group (juniors and seniors) of the Providence Engineering Academy was statics, or the branch of physics associated with objects at rest. As a way to explore this topic, the members of the Engineering Academy collaborated with the Providence Physical Education Department. Their goal was to create versatile wooden boxes that could function in many different ways: an obstacle course, a balance beam, or a step-up box, for example. In this way, the engineering students created a system that would not only benefit the P.E. program, but would also help them learn more about statics, since the structure would have to be able to withstand the use of the junior highers (not breaking or sliding on the grass when jumped on, while having multiple uses).

The first box shown in a virtual assembly

The second box shown translucent, interior strength wall visible

This first step of this project was to create paper models of the boxes, to see how everything would fit together. After Mr. Meadth, the director of the Engineering Academy, approved the designs, the team shifted to using an online program called Onshape. Onshape is a design tool used to create realistic models of objects. This CAD technique allowed the budding engineers to visualize their designs of the boxes further and make adjustments where needed. Once the “CADing” was complete, it was time to start producing and assembling the actual boxes.
Mr. Meadth checks the fit of the first two pieces of one box, as
students look on
The students wrestle with the heavy pieces, sliding them into place
Incorporating the “box joint” technique (resembling a three-dimensional puzzle, used for strength), the two large boxes were finally completed after lots of hard work from last year’s juniors and seniors. Each box comprised approximately nine pieces, weighed about 120 pounds, and had volumes of 80 and 48 cubic feet, respectively. Another fun touch added to these boxes was a grid of four inch squares cut into sides of the boxes, allowing them to be connected together with beams. These boxes are oddly shaped, one like a cube cut along the diagonal and the other like a cube with a rectangular chunk missing, which only adds to their versatility.
An almost completed box, missing two faces and the inner wall
Fast-forward three months: two
amazing boxes just as planned!
Since these boxes were created last year, they have had much use from the junior highers. Mr. Mitchell, the P.E. teacher, says that he is “very grateful that the Engineering Academy did this,” and that “these boxes really enhance the fitness pursuits and the program as a whole.” Judging by the frequency of use and Mr. Mitchell’s gratefulness, this project was a resounding success. Great work, Providence Engineering Academy!
A grateful Mr. Mitchell urges his students on as they create
innovative workout routines

Space: The Final Frontier

(This is the second in a series of blog articles written by the Providence Engineering Academy students. In the light of our recent trip to Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Ben in 12th Grade describes some of the history and future of space exploration.)

The concept of space travel has captured the public eye since the late 1800s with science fiction. As humans learned to blow things up in a certain direction more effectively, what was once science fiction became science speculation and from there we continued in our search for what lies beyond.

The entire group poses inside the famous JPL facility
On September 25, 2019, the Providence Engineering Academy was given the opportunity to take a glimpse into our country’s efforts to see just what else God has created in our universe at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. We humans, as stewards of creation, have a special role in discovery and advancement of our world, and this stewardship is taken seriously at JPL. They have produced deep space telescopes, orbital telescopes, weather telescopes, rovers, etc. for this exact purpose.
Our host stands next to the life-size (non-functional!) sister of
the currently active Mars rover, Curiosity
Mankind continues our search for life on other worlds as JPL designs their next Mars rover, set for launch in 2020. This rover is designed to search the soil of Mars for any signs of life. As an engineering student, I am greatly inspired by the efforts that we as stewards make to find out more about our neighboring planets. Scientists are also hoping to research the seas of Europa, one of the largest moons of Jupiter, to see if there is any life below the outer icy shell. Since there are large bodies of water on Europa, many scientists wonder if creatures live there, just as there is sea life on earth.
Our host shares the incredible history of space exploration from
this site, with a scale model of the Cassini probe in the background
Meanwhile, deep-space telescopes have been expanding the radius of what we know. There are upcoming missions for my generation to develop, based on all of the ground-breaking work done by the gifted scientists at JPL and other locations. One such mission is to develop a telescope to photograph other solar systems so that we can see if there are similar planets to Earth in those systems.
We deeply appreciated the enthusiasm and brilliance on display at JPL, and we wait with anticipation for what the future might hold—perhaps we’ll be a part of it!

Summer Camp 2019

This summer, the Providence Engineering Academy once again hosted the very special Robot City summer camp. With assistance from four capable high school engineering students (Alena, Davis, Pedro, and Zach), Mr. Eves and Mr. Meadth put on an unforgettable experience!

(Please note that all photos in this article have been selected to avoid showing camper faces, since not all students are from Providence with a photo release. Apologies if you’re looking for your loved one’s smiling face!)

Day 1: Architecture
After breaking into four teams, each group selected the theme for their quadrant of Robot City. The Green Team chose Time Travel, the Blue Team settled on a Medieval Castle, the Yellow Team laid out an Alien Attack on the Beach, and Red Team was Future City. A quick lesson of folding geometric nets, and all campers from 3rd to 7th Grade were ready to build!

The skyline emerges! A colorful mess of card and tape!

Red Team’s skyscraper went up and up and up, and needed to be
tied down with guy ropes!
Blue Team’s “Nice No-Trap Castle”. Should we believe them?

With inspiring challenges like “Tallest Tower” and “Most Colorful”, each team worked hard to lay out their cities. Skyscrapers rose up six feet into the air, zip lines were strung out, and spaces carefully divided out.

Day 2: CAD and 3D Printing
It might sound complex, but physically printing CAD (computer-aided design) models is something within the reach of any elementary student! Mr. Meadth taught the campers how to use Tinkercad, a free in-browser design tool created by AutoDesk. Designers can use simple shapes such as cylinders, cones, spheres, and prisms to create more complex models, such as houses and rocketships and characters.

Two of our campers work on their CAD models (Owen’s model
on the right is shown in detail below)

This is a great tool to get kids thinking in terms of linear dimensions, negative and positive space, perspective, volume, and it’s just plain creative fun! Here are a couple of examples of what the kids came up with. We also had spaceships, tanks, flying cars, and castles. Wow!

Once created (the models above took the students less than an hour to build), the designs were sent to the 3D printer. At a small enough print size, most models were done in about an hour, in a range of colors. Of course, after the camp the students got to keep whatever they have printed!

It’s just as addictive as watching TV, but at the end of the program
there’s actually something to show for. Thanks, Raise3D!

Day 3: Electrification
Always a favorite! Mr. Meadth gave a quick lesson on simple circuits, explaining terms such as “LED”, “voltage”, “series”, and “parallel”. Each team was given a supply of copper tape, coin batteries, and LEDs, and shown how to connect them together to power their city. It wasn’t long before the entire room was lit up with red, blue, orange, white, and green!

A lovely beach paradise in the shadow of the skyscrapers
(the tidal wave was added later)

The Green Team’s time travel zone included some helpful signs
(because time travel can be confusing)

A scale replica of the Golden Gate Bridge, courtesy of Abigail

All teams took up the extra challenges as well, building working paper switches, including both series and parallel circuits, and working to match their lighting arrangements to their theme. Blue Team created “laser traps” for their medieval castle, and Green Team strung out a long neatly-lit road to mark out their different time travel zones. Billboard were illuminated and “stained-glass” windows lit from the inside.

Mr. Eves works on the Blue Team’s medieval quadrant
LEDs don’t come through well in photos, but you get the idea!

When parents arrived for pickup on Wednesday, the lights went out, and the party started!

Day 4: LEGO Robotics
What’s a Robot City without robots? This year, Mr. Meadth and Mr. Eves guided the campers on how to incorporate LEGO Mindstorms robotics sets. Rather than creating robotic systems that would move around (and potentially destroy delicate buildings and circuits!), the teams focused on stationary mechanical systems. Mr. Meadth gave some lessons on essential mechanical systems (bevelled gears, gear reductions, universal joints, cams and cranks, etc.), issued some fun challenges, and away they all went!

Does this look like anybody’s bedroom floor? Times it by 16.

A futuristic monorail glides around Green Team’s city buildings

What’s a medieval world without an authentic, functional windmill?

We were blown away by all of the amazing creations that campers and their team leaders built: several working elevators (with tracks and with pulleys/windlasses); a slowly rotating time travel portal (sadly not actually functional); a crank-powered shooting spaceship; an amusement park ride; drawbridges; a merry-go-round; several demolition machines!

(P.S. For any parents of elementary students wanting a more cost-friendly version of LEGO Mindstorms, I highly recommend LEGO Boost. At about $150, it is a somewhat simplified system, still with sensors, motors, and fully programmable using a block-based system. The only downside is that it does always need a tablet/phone/computer app to be running via Bluetooth to make it work.)

Day 5: Do Over
At this point in the camp, the kids have learned so many different things and have typically gravitated towards one or the other. Some of them think that LED illumination is the coolest thing, and others just can’t get enough of making CAD models online. So on the fifth day, Mr. Meadth and Mr. Eves issued a few more challenges of various sorts. The teams helped put together a welcome sign with their photo on it; they all constructed a wearable accessory lit up with more lights and batteries. Some made hats and funky glasses and others made glowing swords!

The fun keeps coming on Day 5!

Robot City continued to grow in complexity and variety. Some teams incorporated sensors into their robotic systems, using touch triggers and infrared detectors to more accurately control their elevators and bridges.

By the time parents arrived at 12:30, the teams were ready for the final wrap-up. All points were tallied, and the all-girl Green Team took the grand prize, much to their delight!

Parents were delighted to see everything
the kids had accomplished… and that
someone else was handling the cleanup!

Mr. Meadth and Mr. Eves would like to thank all families for making our third Robot City camp such a success! We intend to run this again in 2020 (new ideas are already in the works!), so please spread the word amongst family and friends. You can start by sharing this article with someone who might be interested! And remember, this camp is open to all students, not just those from Providence. We’re always glad to welcome new friends from outside our regular community.

Until next year, may these junior engineers keep on designing and keep on building!

Searching for Solutions: Search and Rescue Robot Challenge

(Our latest blog article comes courtesy of Joshua in the 10th Grade.  Thanks, Josh!)

In the event of an emergency, robots may be called upon to enter into areas which have been devastated by natural disaster. The thirteen students from the Foundations of Engineering II class split up into four groups to build such robots, and testing came after eight weeks of work and dedication!

The original CAD model of the obstacle course, constructed
over several weeks by our indefatigable teaching assistants,
seniors Josh and Claire
The testing included nine phases (any of which could be skipped) all while carrying a payload. The teams would go through two gates of different sizes, over a gravel pit, up onto platforms of varying heights of 50 and 100 mm, push a block with the mass of one kilogram, go across a chasm, and make their way up a 45° incline. At the end of the run, the robot would be required to drop off the payload. The driver for each team would first do this routine while watching from nearby, and then once again using only a first-person camera view.
Davis gets his team’s robot up onto the 50 mm platform with
no worries at all
The first robot to test was the “Trapezoidal Tank”. This robot was built by Nolan, Davis, and Alan. They felt ready for the first trial of the course, but decided to skip the 45° incline. Everything ran smoothly until the payload drop at the very end. They realized something was wrong.

The payload mechanism’s motor came unplugged!

Davis, the driver, thought up an idea. The payload was resting on top of the robot. What if he just flipped the whole robot over? Using the tank’s “tail”, he flipped the robot up onto its end and delivered the payload.

Although not able to climb the full 45 degree slope, with a slight
modification the Trapezoidal Tank was make it at 40 degrees
A moment of pure glory! Davis upends the entire robot and performs
the obligatory victory dance!
On the camera-only run, the course was successfully completed again with only one obstacle skipped.

Caleb taking things in his stride, as the long-legged robot effortlessly
clambers over the gravel pit obstacle
Caleb attempts to steer by camera only–
no easy feat! 
Pushing the one-kilogram block away, the package waiting to be
delivered is clearly seen on the right-hand side of the robot
This complex (and squeaky) maneuver involves a series of
high-torque gymnastic activities

Next up was “Daddy Long Legs,” a robot with motorized wheels attached to extended legs. It was built by Caleb, Sydney, and Zach. Caleb, the driver, slowly completed the run, also skipping the very difficult 45° incline. On the camera-only trial, the robot was not able to place the payload in the designated area.

Anaconda brings its bulk to bear on a one-kilogram block of wood
This monster robot leaps 100 mm platforms with
a single bound!

Next was “Anaconda”, built by Sam P., Isaiah, and Pedro. It’s most notable feature? The robot’s tracks could rotate all the way around to point in the opposite direction. Sam P. took the wheel, and on his first run, he only skipped the smaller gate. On the camera-only run, he made it through the same obstacles without any issues.

James steers the Iron Horse through both gates and up onto
the 100 mm platform
Finally, the “Iron Horse” entered. This robot was built by Sam K., James, Joshua, and Kaitlyn. The design was simple yet effective. However, the extra mechanism they had added to their robot at the last minute broke! It was designed to help them get up onto the two platforms. Fortunately, there was enough power available for it to slowly assist with the obstacle it was built for.
Charging over the gravel pit with a huge ground clearance
Shortly after, that extra mechanism fell off and so did the payload. In a lengthy and complicated series of maneuvers, James used the one-kilogram block to push the payload over into the designated area.
End of the road: the Iron Horse capsizes while trying to free its
jammed package (the small yellow catch was supposed to release
and allow the hinged door to fall)
On the camera-only run, the Iron Horse’s payload wouldn’t release. James used the gravel pit to try to get the payload to come loose, but the robot flipped over. He attempted to flip the robot back over, but it tipped over on its side instead. This run was incomplete.

The lesson to be learned for these four groups? Each problem can be solved in many different ways, but some are more effective than others. In every problem you encounter, consider those many solutions and then choose the most effective one.

Field Trip to Peabody Stadium

After many months of trying, the Providence Engineering Academy was finally able to secure a field trip to see… well, a field! Peabody Stadium, an integral part of the sporting complex at Santa Barbara High School for almost 100 years, has been greatly in need of renewal for a range of reasons—regular flooding, surface maintenance, seating capability, ADA compliance—and our engineering students were given a sneak peek at the behind-the-scenes process!
Our own neighborhood! Peabody Stadium (old image) to the
upper left, and Providence School to the lower right
A quick walk across Canon Perdido Street brought the group to the construction trailers, where Mat Gradias from Kruger Bensen Ziemer Architects, Inc. met them and introduced them to some members of the construction and design team. Mat has been involved with the Santa Barbara ACE Mentor Program, which several of our students (Eva, Victor, and Seung) have attended for the past two years.
Mat showed the construction plans, and described to the group some of the challenges facing the team, from sourcing grants to managing city wastewater ducts to preserving the “look and feel” of the local neighborhood. The team’s original completion date was April 2019, but is now projected for the middle of August.
Josh, Gabe, Victor, Ben, Todd, Colby, Eva, Alena, Claire, and
Madison facing north; behind is the new southern grandstand

There’s a lot of mud and dust right now, but over the next few weeks there’ll be seeing bright green artificial turf laid out. Regular flooding issues will be a thing of the past, with clever water management systems in the event of severe rainfall. Seating capacity will be greatly improved, and highly directional lighting and sound seeks to minimize light and noise pollution for the surrounding areas. The state-of-the-art track surface will be the only one of its kind for a hundred miles—a type of high-tech material that is known for producing world records.

The Engineering Academy was very grateful to Mat and the other presenters, and they’re already excited to see the finished product!

Search and Rescue Robot Photos: Josh Guinto

One of the strengths of our Engineering Academy is the opportunity to assign older students to act as teaching assistants for the younger group. This year, we are privileged to have Josh and Claire, both seniors, working behind the scenes day in and day out. Josh and Claire take care of so many important things, freeing me up (Mr. Meadth) to focus on teaching and assisting students.
Following on from the highly successful robotic arm project, our current robotics challenge is to design and build a search and rescue robot. This idea has been widely explored by many universities and private companies. We are proud to have four separate teams, each developing a unique solution for a robot that can navigate a defined obstacle course and deliver a survival package to a person on the other end. Such a robot might be used in an earthquake scenario.
No more talk from me! Let me simply share some excellent photos taken by Josh (thanks once again!) We’ll send out an update once this project is completed, so stay posted.
Sam and Pedro arrange the motors around a differential gearbox

Zach, Sydney, and Caleb working on some very secret plans!

Sam, Pedro, and Isaiah can’t wait to add tracks to their creation!

Nolan and Alan looking for bugs in the program

Sydney gears up for safety!

Sam compares his custom 3D-printed pentagonal wheels as
James looks on

Kaitlyn and Josh hard at work writing lines of code

Davis completes some highly necessary modifications to his
team’s tracked robot

Mr. Meadth undertakes repairs to one of Zach’s electric motors

James reattaches the front wheels again

Alan considers his 3D-printed component: a rotating “jack” to
tilt their robot up and down

When Things Go Wrong, Could You Lend Me a Hand?

There’s a great deal of discussion right now in educational circles about the positive benefits of failure. You don’t have to look far to find TED talks, psychological reviews, and blog articles on why it’s okay–and even beneficial–to fail. Failure, we read, makes us stronger, fights against complacency, and recommits us to our goals. The warnings are shouted loudly: Parents! Don’t shield your kids from failure! Our own faculty member, Carri Svoboda, shared an article earlier this year about why women in particular might be afraid to fail.

The Foundations of Engineering II class in the Providence Engineering Academy were recently given a new project to wrestle with: design and build a robotic prosthetic arm. Using metal motors and controls for the forearm frame, they then had to 3D print a functional palm, fingers, and thumb. No instructions, and nothing off-the-shelf. Oh, and with one more twist–the entire thing was made double size.

James and Zach prepare the Pink Team’s hand

Isaiah and Kaitlyn working on the finishing touches

So what happens when you give a room full of budding engineers a bunch of robotics parts and computers and a 3D printer? Well, for one, a lot of failure. Dead ends and broken components are commonplace. The line of code that worked yesterday doesn’t work today. The team member that needed to design their part in time just doesn’t. Control wires break. Batteries die. Entropy seems to work harder than its usual self.

And that’s okay!

Davis shows Alan his giant metal forearm; the green boxes down
the side are the motors to control the 3D-printed fingers

The teams worked hard for seven weeks. During this time, they also visited PathPoint, a nearby organization dedicated to working with those needing assistive technology–the original inspiration for this robotic limb project. The direct experience with those who daily use technology to overcome their difficulties was very moving.

The whole group visiting PathPoint, non-profit working here in
Santa Barbara with those needing assistive technology

When all was completed, the four teams loaded up into the school vans, and headed over to the San Roque campus. Their giant articulated hands waved a cheery hello to cars driving by, fingers flexing and twitching in eerie mimicry.

Pedro shows the Yellow Team’s code to a
Lower School student

James checks the workings of his pink articulated fingers

The class presented their designs to the 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th Grades across two days. On the first day, failure was the name of the game, as every team experienced the frustration of things going wrong. To name just a few of the dozens of problems:

  • A control line connecting a motor to a finger broke or came untied.
  • A stop keeping a finger from bending backward broke away.
  • An elastic band returning the finger to neutral position broke.
  • A remote control, necessary for demonstration, would not “pair” with the onboard computer.
  • Another remote control was left behind in the engineering classroom!
Nolan, chief coding specialist for the
White Team

A myriad of challenges–yes! More importantly, how did the students respond?

  • They switched to manual operation instead of motor-controlled.
  • They took extra time to talk to their elementary-aged guests about 3D printing and robots.
  • They used tape and scrap pieces to rebuild a finger stop.
  • They retied control lines, anchoring them with bolts and washers.
  • They avoided focusing on the problems, and drew their audience’s attention to what was working.
Our 5th Grade teacher, Mrs. Suleiman, shared her highlight of the experience: “Hearing the students talk about the ‘failures’ that happened as they were designing the hands, and watching them deal with problems that occurred during their demonstration.”

Lower School students take a turn wiggling the giant fingers
back and forth with the remote control

The students themselves reflected on this very same idea a few days later:

Pedro: “There will always be failure. Failure is good. You learn from it.”

Zach: “Perhaps it is not our mistakes that are the true failures, but the ways that we handle our mistakes that are.”

Alan: “The point of this isn’t about how many failures we have, but how we deal with them.”

Isaiah: “All this goes to say that every problem has a solution. You just have to be willing to persevere.”

And persevere they did. On the second day of presenting, most of the kinks had been worked out. With smiles on their faces, our 9th and 10th Graders talked at length about their coding and CAD. The elementary students were able to take turns at the controls and wiggle those giant fingers back and forth. What a joy to see older students inspiring the younger ones with warmth and kindness!

Nolan helps our Lower School students
operate the arm

Our closing thoughts come from Sydney (9th Grader), who wrote some powerfully encouraging thoughts for all of us:

“I know that even in my academic journey at Providence, I have failed many times… This seems like the world can end, yet once you rise up and decide to learn from those failures, you really do learn the most… Through the project of making a robotic hand, I understand that failing is normal and is bound to happen at some point… I have learned that I need a team or a group who can help me when I fail. I need to give myself grace when I do fail… I am grateful for this experience and the hand that was our outcome, even if it was losing a few nuts and bolts by the end. Great work, team!”

Tension + Integrity = Tensegrity

The Providence Engineering Academy seeks every year to put skills to use for the benefit of the community. From designing playground equipment to running science lessons, “we have an obligation to turn our skills outward to the world around us; we learn not for our own sakes” (quoted from the Engineering Academy application).

This year, the Advanced Engineering I students took on a challenge from our very own fitness guru, Scott Mitchell. Mr. Mitchell, who teaches middle school P.E. and runs our outdoor education program, is passionate about his craft. He wants students to understand the human body, in terms of both structure and motion. Mr. Mitchell has long used tensegrity structures as an analogy to help students visualize these principles.

What’s a tensegrity structure, you ask? While a formal definition is somewhat elusive, you know it when you see it. Popularized by the architect Buckmister Fuller and his student, sculptor Kenneth Snelson, these structures feature “compression members floating in a sea of tension.” Still confused?

Here’s an animated GIF from Wikipedia’s page:

The engineering class began with some small models, using elastic bands for the tension elements and wooden dowels for the compression struts.

Victor with the most simple of all tensegrity structures: three sticks
not touching
Victor and Todd with a six-member icosahedron
Josh finds a new use for the 12-stick version

As simple as these look, they take a great deal of effort to plan and assemble. But this was not the end goal; our class aimed to build a giant version of the icosahedron, with compression members 8 feet long!

Attempt 1:

A lot of knots tied to create 24 rope members. Attached lag bolts to 20 lb beams. Got it together and realized that everything was way too loose. Too much sag. Took it apart.

Alena carefully loops the non-slip knot over the bolt
Ben gets those bolts secured
Inital success and exuberance, but everything is far too loose

Attempt 2:

All rope connections shortened by 5 inches to tighten things up.  Unfortunate result: humanly impossible to pull together. Mr. Mitchell attempted to complete the final connections under great duress. Failure, bent bolts, and an abandoned attempt.

Attempt 3:

Straightened out bolts. Loosened all rope lengths by 2 inches. Realized that we can do this the easy way, working with the structure and not against it. Beams held in different orientation. Pulled it all together, but some bolts bent again. Much tighter, much easier, good result!

Colby and Todd compare the 8-foot version to the 12-inch!

Attempt 4:

Practice makes perfect! Rechecked all ropes, and found a few that were too long. Replaced all bolts with thicker ones twice as strong in bending. Worked in new orientation and got it together in under 10 minutes! (Compare this video to the last.)

Mr. Meadth tests it out before anyone else–in the name of safety,
of course!

Todd climbs inside once everything is approved

Eva’s turn!

In case it’s not clear from the pictures and videos alone, it has to be emphasized that none of the wooden beams you see are touching each other. Each of them is “floating in a sea of tension”, held in place by the 24 ropes. This is despite the fact that the entire structure weighs about 160 lb (73 kg).

Here’s another interesting observation: in the interest of safety, we strapped a force gauge to the ropes, and measured 150 lb of tension. (These ropes are rated up to 300 lb, so no problem!) But when Mr. Meadth climbed up on top, weighing about 155 lb himself, the rope tension only increased to 190 lb. How fascinating that 155 lb of live weight does not increase the rope tensions by that amount.

In fact, three people at one time were able to climb up on the structure (totalling more than 300 lb), but the max load reading never exceeded 250 lb, with no evidence of any structural problems.

It’s stable, folks! It beautifully and naturally distributes extra load all around to find equilibrium, much like the human body. Even as it moves, it naturally corrects, distorts, and stabilizes. Watch Todd roll a few feet in the following video.

Needless to say, Mr. Mitchell was delighted with the outcome, and brought his middle school P.E. students over to see, touch, and feel its dynamic responses. He taught them that the wooden beams are analagous to our bones, and the tensioned ropes are like our ligaments and tendons and muscles. Inspired by the work of Anatomy Trains, it’s easy to see what happens when our bodies are injured or out of alignment.

Great work, students! Keep on dreaming, designing, calculating, and serving others! Please share this article freely with friends and family.

A good day’s work!

Robots Head to Head

In the Providence Engineering Academy, we take care of a lot of serious business. We use trigonometry to calculate vector components. We learn how Rene Descartes’ philosophy paved the way for a flawed view of “the ghost in the machine”. We learn how to identify fixed, hinged, and simple supports in typical static structures.

And some days, we just get out there and have head-to-head robot wars!

James gets excited as teammate Nolan drops
one in the bucket!

The challenge: set up a metal remote-control robot to collect as many tennis balls as possible in eight minutes.

The setting: the wooden deck behind Mr. Rottman’s room.

The outcome: a whole lot of high-energy fun! (And possibly some learning along the way.)

One robot encounters the harsh realities of the laws of physics…
a quick flip of the claw and it’s back in the game!

After a week of careful coding, mechanical modification, and practice, each of the four teams was ready to enter The Pit. Programmers had gone over scores of lines of code in search of errors and optimizations. Extra bits and pieces were judiciously selected and bolted on. Optimistic 9th and 10th Graders jubilantly walked their robots across the yard to be tried against each other: head to head to head to head!

What do you do when your claw stops working in the middle
of the game? Teacher to the rescue!

The first round was not without its upsets. The whistle blew, and three robots sprang to life, but Sam’s robot just refused to launch. Mr. Meadth waded through a morass of error messages to find that Sam had inadvertently typed extra characters into his code as he had walked over. A quick fix and back in business!

Sam brought the team back to life despite the time lost, scoring double points along the way to finish with seven total. But nothing could touch Pedro, who expertly picked up no fewer than ten balls!

Joshua places his ball with infinite caution
as Pedro and Sam look on

With help from Claire and Josh, our dedicated senior teaching assistants, the field was reset, and new operators stepped up. After a quick reminder of which buttons did what, the robots roared to life again. Sydney managed to best her teammate’s score from four to five, but no one could touch Pedro’s teammate, Joshua, who matched his performance with another ten!

James steadies the bucket while Caleb
drops another one in–illegal move?

For the final round, the controls were passed to James, Alan, Sam, and Kaitlyn. Kaitlyn managed to score six, which was impressive enough, but Alan beat her out by one to make seven… and James roared from behind to lead his team to a victorious ten!

Sydney and Kaitlyn felt this way after each
and every ball

Well done to all team members! You coded and designed and built and redesigned and rebuilt. Well done on working together towards the end goal. Final scores are as follows:

Round 1 Round 2 Round 3 Total
Davis 4 Sydney 5 Kaitlyn 6 15
Pedro 10 Joshua 10 Sam P. 4 24
Nolan 5 Caleb 4 James 10 19
Sam K. 7 Zach 2 Alan 7 16

Well done to Pedro, Joshua, and Sam, winning two out of three rounds and getting the highest cumulative score overall. Our next major robotics project will turn our attention to more sober-minded matters. How can robotics technology be used to help the weak and unfortunate? Stay tuned to find out!