Member field trip: Quadrotors and datacenters

IMG_0062When first stepping through the door, the University of Michigan’s Walter E. Wilson Student Team Project Center feels familiar, like a well-equipped hackerspace/makerspace. A Haas vertical mill dominates the main floor, more modern than i3′s but otherwise similar. In the back are manual mills and lathes, and a nontraditional vehicle (in this case, a solar car) hangs from the ceiling. Upstairs, an electronics lab is giving rise to the next generation of self-contained autonomous quadrotor helicopters. There’s a feeling of easy camaraderie and a subtle sense that the future is taking shape within these walls.

What’s different about the Wilson STPC is that there’s no hobby activity here — no couch, no gaming, no rogue bumper stickers, no tinkering for the sake of tinkering. Use of the Center is for students only, of course, but beyond that, it’s restricted to official student teams competing in various events. Among them is the Michigan Autonomous Aerial Vehicles team, competing in the International Aerial Robotics Competition. Dissatisfied with the suitability of commercially available UAV platforms, MAAV is building their own, and they were kind enough to give i3 Detroit a behind-the-scenes tour on Sunday.

IMG_0085Unlike the internet-darling quadrotors performing aerobatics in a sensor-studded room, MAAV’s machines are almost entirely self-contained, designed to operate in an uncontrolled environment. So in addition to the obvious motors and rotors and batteries, they’re flying sensor platforms, with two onboard LIDAR units, accelerometers, gyroscopes, cameras, and several processors to handle the numerous tasks required. That’s all fixed to an astonishingly strong carbon-fiber frame, home-brewed using a novel molding technique.

i3 Detroit’s tour group got to meet several MAAV team members, check out various early and current hardware versions, and ask tons of questions. As several of our members have robotics and quadrotor experience, there was idea-sharing in both directions.

To demonstrate the stability of the quadrotor’s control system, our guide Jonathan told it to take off and hover at a particular position, and then grabbed one corner of the machine and pulled it several feet out-of-place. It returned immediately to its commanded position and held there, steady as a hummingbird, until commanded to go somewhere else. See the full video of the demonstration here.

IMG_0100After leaving the STPC, half of our group continued on to the day’s second destination, a datacenter by the name of MACC: the Michigan Academic Computing Center. Housing servers and equipment for numerous university departments, it’s a rack-mounted forest of Infiniband cables, storage arrays, and machines with names like “dixiedynamite”. We compared notes about power and cooling, talked about fiber optics and interconnect latency, and hunted down a lone GPS time server.

There are plenty of interesting places in southeast Michigan, and with these field trips, we’re exploring some of them. Stay tuned!

Car hacking: Friday, 7pm. You’re invited.

IMG_0058Q: What has four wheels and fifteen computers?

A: Your car!

For years, I’ve described hackers as “greasemonkeys with cleaner fingernails”. The eagerness to dive into a complex system, the urge to squeeze more performance out of one’s daily-driver, the itch to tinker with something that already “works just fine”. Sound familiar?

As the computer industry and the auto industry continue to overlap, we find ourselves in an interesting spot: Cars are increasingly “street-legal cellphones”, with more and more of their functionality controlled by software, connected through data networks, and accessible to anyone with the right tools and know-how.

Tools and know-how are more powerful when they’re shared, and that’s where i3 Detroit comes in! From logic analyzers to CANbus interfaces, our members and guest community enjoy access to a growing complement of car-hacking tools. But people are the other half of the equation, so Friday’s meetup has two main goals:

1. To connect interested individuals, both within and outside i3′s membership.

2. To familiarize everyone with the tools available and projects afoot, including (tentatively) a demonstration of the OpenXC Platform.

This is the first in a recurring series of car-hacking meetups, which happen monthly on the fourth Friday at i3 Detroit. Come play.

Gaming: Accomplished.

IMG_5009Saturday’s WinterLAN gaming party was a success by any measure. Game-wise, practically everything was represented — I think we had 7 or 8 vintage and modern consoles running simultaneously, plus dozens of PCs on the network, and tabletop games galore. People-wise, there were 40-plus people in the space most of the night, with the last game of Artemis finally wrapping up around 5am.

Thanks to everyone who made the party what it was, from the members who organized it, to the guests just making it to the space for the first time. By the way, there’s no need to wait for next year’s WinterLAN before coming back — there’s a regular tabletop gaming night on the calendar, and if hacking/making is more your style, we do that every night of the week! Just look for that little box in the upper right to say “open for guests”, and you’re invited, just like that.