Orbital ATK Cygnus 6 space truck

The unmanned Cygnus cargo mission OA-6 went up Saturday on a Russian/American Atlas V, successfully delivering a new 3d printer to the International Space station. The ISS crew snagged the Cygnus today with their robotic arm.

Interesting side note on this mission, before Cygnus 6 plunges to its fiery reentry doom it’s going to test artificial gecko feet and be used for a fire-in-space experiment.

$1 million Google Tiny Box prize won

Belgian contenders The Red Electrical Devils have won the $1,000,000 Google Tiny Box prize.

There’s a .pdf of the paper describing their design here, but don’t bother trying to read it if the word “schematic” means nothing to you.

Google’s challenge was for a tiny, lightweight device that converts DC (the type of electricity that batteries and solar panels put out) to AC (the type of electricity that is most useful for doing work). Such devices are called “inverters” and improvements in inverter technology would obviously be useful for electric cars, home solar power systems, and many another thing.

The winning team exceeded Google’s minimum requirements to win by three times, creating a device that is ten times smaller than existing technologies while meeting all of Google’s other restrictions (such as 95% or better efficiency, air cooling, &etc.) It’s extremely impressive work.

The Noggler

I am now the proud owner of the Steve Naugler Elec-Trak electric leafsucker version three. Heather says that’s too long of a name, so in Steve’s honor it ought to be called simply the Noggler. No word yet on what Steve thinks about that.

The original Elec-track E-Z Vac was a frankenstein from birth; Geo reports that it had a massive E12 drive motor attached to a blower and volute made by the E-Z Rake Corporation of Lebanon, Indiana. Thirty inch tall sheetmetal side panels and a cloth top were added to the sturdy Elec-trak dump cart to form the leaf bin, and two lengths of 6″ black plastic tubing connected the bin to the blower, which mounted on the rear stabbers, and the blower to a deck adapter that mounts on any side-output Elec-track mowing deck. The E-T dump cart itself was made by Ohio Steel Fabricators, who probably also made my Sears Craftsman cart of the same vintage.


Steve kicked it up a notch, building this excellent contraption using the deck adapter from an Easy-Vac, the blower from an original Elec-trak E-Z Vac, and the cart from the largest Trac-Vac. It’s like a best of breed hybrid from every leaf sucker known to man. He found some fancy piping that is mostly clear, so you can see blockages without dismantling the thing, with a yellow spiral stripe that matched the original paint job of Steve’s E-15. The leaf bin’s top is steel screening rather than cloth, and it has a sort of hood at the front that prevents leaf debris from ending up in the tractor driver’s hair.

Steve’s sold his wooded property and divested himself of his Elec-Trak and attachments – but the Noggler lives on. I’m almost looking forward to leaf-fall this year.


Mechadon was built as a contestant for the (now defunct) robot wars TV show. The show had devolved into mostly a bunch of ramps trying to flip each other upside down, and Mechadon is sort of the antithesis of that. He really doesn’t even have any up or down, and his back’s not any different from his front. Unfortunately Mechadon is very heavy, too heavy for the main fighting categories of the show, despite his lack of armor over the actuators. The end of this video shows a maneuver the creators called the “death blossom” – note the feet punching divots in the concrete floor on touchdown!

Square D car charger after two months

Back in June I blogged installing a Square D Model EV230WS level 2 electric vehicle charging station.

The new charger is connected by 8 gauge copper wire with a NEMA 14-50 plug and receptacle, a Square D QO series safety switch, and a 40 amp breaker. The actual current draw of the charging station is 30 amps at 240 VAC, so I am still well within code for the 100 amp subpanel in the barn, and having the 14-50 plug means we can potentially support other 240 mobile loads like Teslas, large RVs, plasma cutters, and portable welders.

As promised, the system charges our plug-in Prius in roughly 1.5 hours, and the Nissan Leaf in 5. It’s very simple, no unnecessary bells or whistles, you just plug in and walk away. There’s no need for anything more complex, because the cars themselves both have externally visible charge indicators (the Prius just tells you if it’s done charging or not, but the Leaf gives you a rough indication of charging progress with three top-of-the-dash LEDs) and both cars can give you detailed charts and graphs of charging status and history from their on-board computer systems.

We’ve had a total of one unusual incident – last week the system lit its red “alarm” LED when the Leaf was plugged in. Since I installed it with a safety switch, it was easily rebooted, which cleared the alarm and restored normal function.

Last night a nearby lightning strike spiked our power, causing computers to reboot and making the HVAC system noisily unhappy, but the charger (which was plugged into the Prius at the time) didn’t seem to care much, it just rebooted itself and carried on normally.

All in all, we are quite pleased with everything about the charger except the price. All electric vehicle charging stations are ridiculously expensive right now, though, and at $600 the Square D EV230WS was the most cost-effective charger available without building our own.

Go Baby Go

GoBabyGo is an ongoing project started in 2006 by pediatric researchers Cole Galloway and Sunil Agrawal. The basic concept, which has evolved significantly since the project’s inception, is to provide mobility to kids who have trouble moving on their own by modifying off-the-shelf toy racecars, empowering them to be part of the action at home, in the daycare center, and on the playground.

“Fun is key here—it unlocks brain development and exploratory drive for the child, and ignites active, engaged play from adults and peers. When your main goal is mobility and socialization of young children and their families, you can’t ask for better collaborators than Barbie and Mater.” –Cole Galloway

The team is also trying to develop kid-friendly exoskeletons to promote upper-body movement and harness systems to provide partial body-weight support and free the hands and feet for sports-type activities.

“There are no commercially available powered wheelchairs for children under three” – Galloway

To learn more about the research, or volunteer to help, contact Cole Galloway through the project page.

Automotive Grade Linux might save your life

A standard Linux-based software platform for the connected car would be huge, and at this point could even be a life-saving development.

Automotive Grade Linux is a collaborative open source project developing a common, Linux-based software stack for the connected car. The community’s first open source software release is now available for download, bringing the industry one step closer to realizing the benefits of open automotive innovation.

Read the press release or visit the AGL Wiki to learn more and download the code.

Recent Windows-based dashboards (for example the Nissan Leaf) are an abomination only slightly less dangerous than even-more-hideous automaker proprietary dashboards (for example the Toyota Prius Plug-in). With all the data that exists about the dangers of distracted driving, and state legislatures passing draconian laws against texting behind the wheel, why is it legal for auto vendors to create these potentially lethal user interfaces? How can a pure touch-screen interface, that must be visually examined to be used, possibly be less dangerous than texting while driving? I can drop or ignore a smartphone, or just turn the bloody thing off, but I am forced to interact with my dashboard!

A step in the right direction is to open up the dashboard software ecosystem, so sane designs have an opportunity to compete for driver approval. After all, you can’t expect the same people who designed backwards fake stickshifts (as commonly found in Nissans and Toyotas) to create a good user interface; these people have already demonstrated that they aren’t capable of understanding the task, much less reaching the goal. But a robust community of Open Source hackers would allow the computerized automotive dashboard to progress in the same way that automobile clubs, hot rod enthusiasts, and similar communities have driven innovation historically in the rest of the car industry – by finding more alternatives, and demonstrating them in action.

For every good design there will probably need to be a lot of bad ones. Let’s stop limiting ourselves to the bad (are you listening, Ford?) and start working on a dashboard that’s less likely to kill people.

Installing a Square D Electric car charger

Since we’ve got two electric vehicles and a plug-in hybrid, it seemed like time to install a level 2 charging station.

After spending about six months studying the options, we decided on the Square D Model EV230WS which periodically goes on sale at Amazon and the Big Box stores (where shopping is a baffling ordeal!) for about $600.

Honestly, I don’t know if it’s really appropriate to call things “Square D” any more. The company was bought out by (nominally French) multinational megacorp Schneider Electric in 1991, after which they introduced the “homeline” series of circuit breakers and load centers, which are not as well regarded as the industry-leading QO series. But on the other hand, Schneider does still make the QOs, and they are still an excellent product family – I put a big QO breaker box in my house when I upgraded the main service a few years back, and I am very satisfied with it.

The new charger is connected by 8 gauge copper wire with a NEMA 14-50 plug and receptacle, a Square D QO series safety switch, and a 40 amp breaker. The actual current draw of the charging station is 30 amps at 240 VAC, so I am still well within code for the 100 amp subpanel in the barn, and having the 14-50 plug means we can potentially support other 240 mobile loads like Teslas, large RVs, plasma cutters, and portable welders.

Now the plug-in Prius should charge in 1.5 hours instead of 3, and the Leaf is supposed to drop from a totally impractical 16 hours (on the level 1 charger) to much more user-friendly 5 hours.

Tesla Motors opens electric car patents

Tesla Motors has decided to encourage competition by letting everyone have access to their technology edge.

Technology leadership is not defined by patents, which history has repeatedly shown to be small protection indeed against a determined competitor, but rather by the ability of a company to attract and motivate the world’s most talented engineers.
— Elon Musk, CEO Tesla Motors

Toyota linear generator

Crankless linear motors are not new, but haven’t been very successful historically. Not only are they more difficult to engineer than crankshaft engines, they also haven’t generally been as useful because what we’ve needed has usually been rotating forces, like for example to drive wheels and generators.

But Toyota has wedded the linear motor with a linear generator that reminds me of the (awful, don’t buy one) shake-light and adapted it to power generation for series hybrid vehicles, where it makes a suprising amount of sense.

A series hybrid is one where only the electric motor ever powers the wheels directly; the fuel-burning engine runs a generator to provide electricity rather than motive power. A parallel hybrid is one where the fueled engine and the electric motor are both always driving the wheels. The Prius is neither, which is why the Prius was such a gamechanger for hybrid vehicle technology.

Other researchers have noted the ability of modern fuel injection systems to compensate for most of the traditional problems of crankless linear engines, and built multi-fuel versions.

E-20 restoration on Ebay going cheap

Jeff Antonucci’s got a fully restored General Electric E20 electric garden tractor for sale on eBay. This is the big boy of the Elec-Trak family, only the I5 is arguably mightier, and right now it’s going very cheaply – less than a grand for a machine that uses no gasoline and requires almost no maintenance.

Jeff is a long-time Elec-Trak enthusiast known for his superb restorations. He’s replaced the Apollo-era motor controls with a modern Alltrax fully electronic controller, which is a tried and true upgrade.

Not actually Jeff's E20, but an identical one.

Classic Electric Garden Tractor for sale

Jeff Antonucci, who is fairly well known and respected in the EV world, has restored a New Idea EGT-150, which is a clone of the GE Elec-Trak E15, and has it up for sale.

Jeff describes his restoration (photo-documented at the Elec-Trak Owner’s Club Forum):

Fully disassembled, sand blasted, powder coated, all new hardware, all new contactors and relays, all motors rebuilt with new bearings and the brushes were replaced where necessary. All new Cole Hersee control switches. Transaxle rebuilt as well. New Carlisle tires. Charger upgraded to include a Landis controller in addition to the timer and a switch to choose between the two. Includes fully restored mower deck.

By incorporating lots of tried-and-true small improvements (like the Landis controller, late model electrics, heavier springs and bearings here and there, etc.) Jeff’s made the machine better than the original, and the original was actually pretty good – although only about 3000 of them were made, there are still some in service after 40 years of continuous use.
Restored EGT-150 electric garden tractor
I would happily buy this machine, if I didn’t already have an original I-5!

3 states now blocking Tesla sales

New Jersey has joined Arizona and Texas in banning direct sales of Tesla electric vehicles to the public.

Chris Christie, that fearless champion of free enterprise and democracy, used his personal control of the state’s Motor Vehicle Commission to end-run the representative branch of New Jersey’s government, who might have raised some sort of ethical objections to what Christie called “the cold, hard hand of government determining winners and losers.”

Tesla will presumably have to shut down its two dealerships in New Jersey, which were giving well-heeled NJ residents a way they could personally and individually choose to reduce the tailpipe-emission pollution problem that sends 53,000 Americans to an early grave every year.

Is the inevitable apotheosis of the Reagan “Revolution”? Parasitic middle-men and Ayn Rand worshipping dirty energy producers using their control over the machines of government to prevent individuals from taking effective action on the behalf of their neighbors and descendants? These people believe that any action that is not motivated by greed should be forbidden, and it seems that they have the power to make it so.

Electric riding mower at CES!

The Cub Cadet RTZ-S Zero isn’t quite as good as a 1973 Elec-Trak… because it’s not a garden tractor capable of mowing, it’s a dedicated riding lawnmower. CES coverage at wired.com.

Despite the battery life being somewhat disappointing compared to Apollo-era Elec-Traks, it looks like a very nice machine – and only about $1100 more than a comparable gasser, so it’d pay for itself pretty quickly if you actually need a riding mower. And there’s an upside to the shorter run time and dedication to a single job – you have to figure it’s probably significantly lighter than the larger Elec-traks with their quarter-ton of lead-acid batteries – you can’t really hop off a stuck E20 or I5 and just push it out of a ditch like a gasoline rider, you have to go fetch a heavy tow chain.