Rocket Scientists Are Arduino at Heart

The Carbon Origins Apollo data logger board

The Carbon Origins Apollo data logger board

This is the story of a group of college students who moved to the Mojave Desert, bought a house, painted it white, and turned it into a makeshift lab. Then they went out to launch rockets.

Talking to Amogha Srirangarajan from Carbon Origins

But they ran into problems, when they launched their Neptune 2 rocket,

“Our rocket exploded, and we didn’t know why, we needed a data logger …”

and because they’re makers, and all the data loggers they could find were too expensive or just not right for the job, they went ahead and built their own.

The Phoenix 0.2.1 launch in the Mojave Desert

Their Apollo board is less than two square inches in size and is packed with sensors — eleven of them.

“We called it Apollo, because it has eleven sensors …”

The tiny six-layer board has an accelerometer, gyroscope, magnetometer, and GPS, and can measure temperature, pressure, humidity, light (both UV and IR), and it records audio. But the board also comes with Bluetooth LE and wi-fi onboard, an SD Card for logging data locally, LiPo battery management circuitry, and it has an OLED screen and a vibrating trackball. If you count them up, the Apollo has over 200 components, all packed onto that tiny two-square-inch board.

Carbon Origins talking at MakerCon in New York

Based around the same ARM Cortex-M3 chip as the Arduino Due, the board will be part of the Arduino at Heart program, and is completely open source. The board will ship with software making use of their own Arduino library that gives access to all of the onboard sensors. However the extra GPIO pins, not used by the onboard sensors, are exposed for use and Carbon Origins will be producing a series of smart shields to make use of those extra pins.

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The board is on display here at Maker Faire in New York this weekend, and will be arriving on Kickstarter in the next month or so, and we’ll be back talking to the Carbon Origins team when it does.



Building robots and rockets with Javascript

Ron Evans and Adrian Zankich talking about Cylon.js on the Make: Electronics Stage at the 2014 Bay Area Maker Faire

There was a time when turning an LED on and off using a microcontroller took a week, and detailed knowledge of the microcontroller. But that was before Arduino. But even with Arduino people sometimes found it hard to hack together the things the wanted to do, especially when you had to deal with networks, something that was traditionally seen as hard on an Arduino.

Despite that the Arduino, and later the Raspberry Pi, made building things—robots for instance—much easier, primarily due to the huge community that they built up around themselves. It has been those communities that has led the Arduino and the Raspberry Pi to dominate the landscape. If you had a problem, there was someone that had probably already had the same problem and solved it for you.


A Cylon.js controlled Sphero (credit Matthew Bergman)

Enter the web developers, and node.js. For those of you who haven’t come across it yet, node.js is a server-side solution for JavaScript—it’s an event-driven Javascript platform which does non-blocking I/O—and is rapidly gaining popularity, and mindshare amongst the web community. It’s that popularity and the arrival of boards that natively speak Javascript—like the Tessel or the Espruino—that means that a third community is now growing.

This third community doesn’t seem to look at microcontrollers, electronics, and things like building robots, quite the same way as we’ve done in the past, and that makes a lot of sense. Coming from a high level language background, and the web, they put the software stack first, and networking a close second. Their approach leads to frameworks like Cylon.js—a JavaScript framework for robotics, physical computing, and the Internet of Things written for node.js.

I first ran across them at ThingsCon earlier in the year, where they held a workshop using Spheros, Arduinos, and the Leap Motion gestural controller to show how easy it is to hack hardware using Javascript. So when I saw they were talking on the Make: Electronics Stage at the Bay Area Maker Faire a couple of weeks ago, I thought that this was a good chance to sit down and talk  to Ron Evans—one of the creators of Cylon.js—about the Cylon.js framework and where it was going.

So tell me about Cylon.js?

Cylon.js is a open source JavaScript framework for robotics and the Internet of Things. It supports 19 different hardware and software platforms, and multiple platforms at the same time. Our goal is to make developing software for devices as easy as web development.

Why Javascript?

JavaScript is one of the most popular programming languages, and thanks to being built on top of node.js we can handle the real-time I/O and streaming needed to communicate with many different devices.

There seems to be a lot of interest from the Javascript—especially the Node.js community—in hardware, why do you think that is?

There are a couple different reasons. One is that the JS community are very much trail-blazers in terms of exploring new technologies. Another is the influence of my friend Chris Williams—the main organiser of JSConf and the newer RobotsConf—who has been a key player in helping introduce the JS community to hardware hacking.

Why do you think Makers, people that have traditionally been much closer to the hardware, are going to be interested in a Javascript framework?

The ubiquity of JS has made it a lot easier for people to program on different kinds of JS-enabled devices, such as the Beaglebone Black and Raspberry Pi. Working in a higher-level language such as JS allows devs to spend less time of just trying to get things to work, and more time actually making something useful.

The platforms you support seems to be a mix of UI elements, pre-built hardware, software and boards. How do they interact?

We call it “full-stack robotics,” and we have adopted several different software design patterns to integrate different layers together in a seamless way. Similar to how web developers can switch between different database engines, we allow you connect to different devices, and even switch from one platform to another with a minimum number of code changes. We also support “Test-Driven Robotics” to allow devs to write automated tests before writing code on the actual hardware.

How does Cylon.js ‘support’ something like the Arduino or the Digispark that doesn’t speak Javascript?

Cylon.js also supports many different kinds of communication with devices, such as serial or TCP/UDP. In the case of the Arduino we communicate using the Firmata protocol, and in the case of the Digispark we support a protocol named Littlewire created by the brilliant Jenna Fox that runs on even smaller micro-controllers such as the Digispark.

You seem to run a lot of workshops to promote the framework, tell me how those go? Why do you run them?

We have had an amazing response to the robot hacking workshops that we’ve been running at conferences all over the world.

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From people who are already makers, to those who have never had a chance to program any hardware at all, we have seen a really high level of enthusiasm and happiness. We try to incorporate the artistic and creative side as well. For example, at our recent workshops we show people how to make wearable controllers out of Popsicle sticks and conductive foil to drive around Sphero robots.

Where do you see Cylon.js heading?

We are starting to see a very active community growing. At JSConf, we had a group of people that built NodeRockets using Cylon.js, the Raspberry Pi, and Arduino, which they then launched into the sky using compressed air. They had telemetry readings, deployed their parachutes, and everything all using Cylon.js. No surprise that Cylon.js is demonstrating space superiority, of course!

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We are adding new hardware support for more devices, some of which are not released, so we cannot talk about them yet—but more on that in the upcoming months. Our company is the “software company that makes hardware companies look good,” so we’re here to help out both as open source contributors, as well as professionals when we’re needed.

With the ability for them to hack hardware in their native language, I think we’re going to be seeing a lot more hardware hacking from the web developers.

Ten Dollar Stomp Rocket Launcher

Chris Connors’ 10 Dollar Stomp Rocket Launcher looks pretty cool!

Stomp rockets are a great way to introduce flight, pneumatics, and energy transfer through hands-on learning. Paper rockets are very easy to make, and use “virtually free” materials. This will help encourage multiple iterations and exploration of rocket design. You should be able to focus on the important aspects of building and redesigning the rockets. The rockets themselves are very inexpensive, and there are lots of options for their redesign.

Book Review: I Still Have All My Fingers

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Book Review: I Still Have All My Fingers, by Dan Pollino

Review by Daniel Kirk

In this manual for building a 72-inch amateur rocket, everything but the parachute is repurposed or scratch-built, including the motor and propellant. The rocket accelerates to over 400 miles per hour in 3 seconds and travels to an altitude of 6,000 feet. The book, like the rocket, follows a modular plan. Detailed, well-written instructions and a clear photo explain each step. More than a cookbook, nearly every step explains why. Technique, tool, or material options are given for many steps, giving experienced rocketeers flexibility. This is not a project for a beginner, but if you’re at all interested in amateur rocketry, it’s good reading.

This is an excerpt from MAKE Volume 33.


DIY Rocket Competition

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Why should Elon Musk have all the fun?

Yesterday at South By Southwest, DIYROCKETS and Sunglass announced a new competition for an “Open Source 3D Printed Rocket Engine” that would be capable of sending nano-satellites into orbit. The competition starts tomorrow and runs through June. Here’s more information from DIYROCKETS and Sunglass:

“The competition opens for registration at South By Southwest (SXSW) on March 9, and challenges makers, designers and space entrepreneurs to create open source rocket engines that will serve the growing market for small payload delivery into low earth orbit and ultimately, disrupt the space transportation industry. Although several companies have recently made strides in showcasing the power of the private sector in space exploration, DIYROCKETS is taking this a step further by creating the first of many competitions that encourages the fusion of creativity, technology and collaboration by people across the globe. Utilizing Sunglass’s cloud-based platform to visualize, collaborate, manage versions and exchange feedback on each design with team members and the public from anywhere on the globe, the contest aims to dramatically drive down design costs, while creating innovative technology for all types of space hardware and parts, ranging from space propulsion to space medical sensors. Teams will have the freedom to work in a 3D design environment of their choice such as SolidWorks, Autodesk Inventor, Rhino or CATIA, while syncing their project to the Sunglass cloud. DIYROCKETS’ strategic partnership with Sunglass is the first step in making space design open and collaborative, as the company is offering full usage of its collaborative design platform to all contestants. As the leading prize sponsor of the challenge, Sunglass will award a total of $10,000 in prizes for the winning designs, focusing on technical aspects as well as collaborative teamwork., the world’s leading 3D Printing marketplace and community, will also be providing $500 in free 3D printing to help create each of the top two designs, which will be judged by legendary inventor, Dean Kamen, TED Senior Fellow and Crew Commander of the NASA-funded HI-SEAS Mars simulation, Angelo Vermeulen, and a panel of industry experts hailing from NASA, MIT, TED among others.”

You can learn more about the competition here.

MAKE Magazine Interviews NASA Administrator Charles Bolden

Charles Bolden, NASA administrator, joined by Patrick Scheuermann, NASA Marshall Space Flight Center director, Frank Ledbetter, chief of nonmetallic materials and manufacturing division at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, and Andy Hardin, NASA's Space Launch System subsystem manager for liquid engines. NASA is  using a high-tech 3D printing process, called selective laser melting, to create intricate metal parts for America's next heavy-lift rocket.  Bolden toured MSFC's National Center for Advanced Manufacturing Rapid Prototyping Facility on Friday, Feb. 22 where he saw this technology first hand. Photo Credit: NASA.

Charles Bolden, NASA administrator, touring the National Center for Advanced Manufacturing Rapid Prototyping Facility (at Marshall Space Flight Center), joined by Patrick Scheuermann, NASA Marshall Space Flight Center director, Frank Ledbetter, chief of nonmetallic materials and manufacturing division at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, and Andy Hardin, NASA’s Space Launch System subsystem manager for liquid engines. Photo Credit: NASA.

It’s not every day that the leader of the free world sings the praises of 3D printing technology. The mainstream media has paid extra attention to additive manufacturing since the President gave his State of the Union address.  In his speech, he explicitly singled out 3D printing as having “the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything.”  Of course, MAKE readers have known this for awhile, but it’s nice to know that the government is finally talking openly about it.

Whenever the President speaks, of course, nobody is paying more attention than his executive staff who run the various federal agencies, including NASA. NASA and its contractors have been leaders in manufacturing since the days of Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. To better facilitate the development of new advanced technologies for flying to, living, and working in space, a new Space Technology Directorate has been created. Among the goals of this new NASA organization are to develop programs that enhance NASA’s advanced manufacturing abilities. To showcase NASA’s new initiatives, on Friday, Feb. 22, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden toured the National Center for Advanced Manufacturing Rapid Prototyping Facility at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Al.

The highlights of this tour were the advanced manufacturing technologies being applied toward construction of the Space Launch System, NASA’s next generation rocket vehicle. During his tour, Bolden viewed firsthand examples of 3D printed steel and titanium rocket parts, including components fabricated with selective laser melting, using the Concept Laser M2 LaserCUSING device.

Afterwards, Administrator Bolden took time to speak to the media, including 10 minutes with MAKE.  The following is a summarized transcript of our conversation.

Matthew F. Reyes: Hello General Bolden. I speaking with you today as a writer for MAKE magazine, but I am also one of your subcontractors at NASA Ames Research Center.

Administrator Charlie Bolden: Great! I am very much aware of the maker community and am glad to speak with you.

MFR: Given recent news of the creation of the NASA Space Technology Directorate, do you see opportunity for new programs within NASA that may better engage the do-it-yourself maker community of students and other highly technically-capable creative types wanting to build flight hardware?

CB: The space technology mission directorate was created to support the creation of space technology in support of the other organizations in NASA such as the Science Missions and Human Spaceflight Directorates. It was created to develop technology that we need for SLS and for other missions across the agency. That said, NASA is not in the job of starting companies, but to actively help small businesses access and use our space technology through our small business initiatives such as the SBIR/STTR programs.

MFR: Many members of the maker community are highly technically skilled, but are often under-employed or even unemployed. Take for instance NASA’s old shuttle workforce: these experts could be a major contributor to the maker community as well. Do you see future opportunities to retrain these people to work with makers in developing flight hardware?”

CB: NASA is working on workforce retraining programs, for instance, some space shuttle machinist are now being retrained to work on software design, new kinds of controls systems,  or other work that they may be interested in learning. In fact, we are going to each NASA Center to look at their special expertise and what they do best in support of retraining the workforce.

Each Center has its own specialty; for instance, the advanced manufacturing work here at Marshall. Also you should talk to Pete Worden at Ames and you’ll see how wildly excited all of the high school and college students get while working on small satellites. The same can be said for Johnson Space Center and their active robotics development projects.”

MR: “Given your flight experience in microgravity and NASA’s growing additive manufacturing capabilities, what can you imagine this technology can do in orbit? What could MAKE readers voluntarily design and contribute with 3D printing to provide something useful for astronauts in space?”

CB: In my day, as an astronaut, it was more like a camping trip, we had everything that we needed in space with us and we were trained different. My personal experiences are different from today’s astronauts. They are really living in space. They are always needing to service and repair things such as plumbing and cooling systems. Plenty of things break that a 3D printer could be used in repair.

At NASA Marshall and Ames, we are working on putting 3D printing machines on the International Space Station with a group called Made In Space. Made in Space is developing 3D printer and other additive manufacturing technologies to operate in microgravity. I suggest that Ames and Marshall continue to collaborate with Made in Space to further develop these 3D printing capabilities”

MFR: Thank you, General Bolden! Before you go, my father says: ‘Semper FI Marine!’

CB: Wow! Semper Fi back 

In an upcoming article, I will delve deeper into NASA’s collaborations with Made in Space as well as how NASA, SpaceX, and others are using 3D printing for rocket engine parts.

Fly an iPhone on a Rocket and Collect Data

Data lovers, this week Make: Projects community member Mike Westerfield shared a pair of intriguing how-tos detailing how to fly a TI SensorTag and an iPhone on a model rocket to find acceleration, rotation, and pressure, then collect and analyze the data using a Bluetooth link to the iPhone and techBASIC. He includes plans for building the neat little balsa wood holder for the phone and sensor.

Love his intro:

It was a beautiful fall morning as I carefully packed the parachute, slid in the engine, and installed the igniter in my model rocket. I started the data collection program and slid the payload with a TI Bluetooth low energy SensorTag and an iPhone 4s into the payload bay. Yes, an iPhone. My wife’s iPhone. Gulp.

Check out both how-tos: iPhone Flies on a Rocket Analyze Data from iPhone Rocket Flights

And Mike’s accompanying video:

Homemade Hybrid Rocket Engine

“For demo only,” Ben Krasnow gives a walkthrough in the video below of his homemade hybrid rocket engine, made by combining a rod of poly(methyl methacrylate) with gaseous oxygen. Watch as he shows the fabrication methods for constructing the rocket as well as detailing the rocket engine’s ignition properties.

I built a small rocket engine for demonstration purposes… I lit the engine by inserting a burning cotton swab (with wooden stick) while a small amount of oxygen was flowing. The acrylic catches fire very easily in a pure oxygen environment. The engine can be throttled and shut off completely, which is a major benefit to hybrid engine designs.

More with Ben Krasnow: How-To: Homemade Astronaut Ice Cream What Carbonated Acrylic Plastic Looks Like DIY liquid nitrogen generator

3D Printing a Rocket Engine

3D printers are cool for printing miniature Yoda heads, tiny owls, and little tea cups. But what about printing something really useful, like, say, a stainless steel rocket engine?

Check out this project from Rocket Moonlighting. Says Hack-a-Day:

Most any rocket engine you’d find on a spacecraft – save for solid or hybrid rockets – use an engine system that’s fairly complex. Because of the intense heat, the fuel is circulated around the chamber before ignition giving a motor its regeneratively cooled nomenclature. This arrangement leads to a few complicated welding and machining processes, but surprisingly these obstacles can be overcome by simply printing a rocket engine on a 3D printer.

Season 3 of Large Dangerous Rocket Ships to Premiere

For the third year running, SCIENCE takes viewers inside the high-flying, fuel injected competition of LARGE DANGEROUS ROCKET SHIPS, or LDRS (as it’s known to insiders) brings together junkyard geniuses who love the thrill of danger and have a knack for all things explosive for one of the nation’s largest competitive rocket launching events. Audiences will be blown away by the ingenuity of these rocket enthusiasts who have gathered from around the globe to compete in this one-of-a-kind competition. LDRS premieres on SCIENCE on Sunday, October 28, at 10pm (ET/PT). Hosted by Kari Byron of MythBusters, LDRS takes viewers to the Finger Lakes in New York, where rock stars of extreme rocketry compete in this main event of fast-flying homemade missiles. More than 200 rocketeers and crowds of thousands gathered to watch the World Series of rocket ship rivalries. These diehard amateur builders use anything and everything to construct their original, hand-designed catapulted creations– from a flying pig to an antique television to a 400-pound snow mobile. LDRS takes viewers on a wild ride giving them a peek into the unusual subculture of these eclectic engineers as larger-than-life characters and part-time mad scientists fight it out to have the fastest and fiercest sky rocketing invention. Rockets are judged on creativity and performance making the true key to victory the engineering of each magnificent machine. Many of these audacious contraptions reach thousands of feet in the air and fly faster than a jet airliner wowing the spectators with their high-flying feats.