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10 Awesome and Cheap DIY Projects for Geeks

Photo by rarebeasts via Flickr CC
I've been going into craft mode lately. I think it stems from a combination of clinging to summer weekend fun and knowing the holidays are quickly approaching and I need to whip up some gifts. With that in mind I've been doing some digging around in the TreeHugger archives since we often write about rad projects, and I found 10 crafts with a geeky edge that are all pretty darn cheap. If you're looking for something interesting to work on, these suggestions will keep you busy for a good while.

Free - Hipster Cassette Tape iPod Case

This is an idea that came about way back in 2007, when Contexture whipped up an iPod case from old cassettes. In technology terms, that's long ago enough that it's difficult to recall for sure whether or not iPods and cassette tapes coexisted... a little like the Flintstones living with Dino. Regardless, this craft continues to be cool even in 2011 as hipsters still work hard at making cassettes cool again. If you're pack-rat enough to still have a cassette tape laying around (that you aren't sentimentally attached to) then we suggest taking some tools to it and seeing if you can fashion your own case for your more modern music machine. I, for one, am standing here with an X-Acto knife in my hand, eyeing a New Kids on the Block tape...

$3: Solar Emergency Radio

Joshua Zimmerman is pretty much the unofficial King Of Altoids Gadget Projects. I first came across his stuff when browsing Instructables at the beginning of the year. His solar emergency radio caught my eye right away. He was able to craft this tiny thing in an Altoids tin for just $3. It's not only a fun project, but a smart one since it could come in handy during a disaster. You can gather the parts yourself and follow the instructions he sets, or even buy a kit with all the parts you need from his website BrownDogGadgets.

Photo by neotint via Flickr CC

$4: Bike Panniers

If you're going to be a serious DIY geek, you have to have a way to haul parts from the salvage yard to your workbench. I used to have a milk crate strapped to the back of my bike with a bungee cord. Stylin, right? It was cheap, but not practical -- nor exactly what I'd call awesome. I love this project that shows you how to turn reusable grocery bags into sturdy saddlebags. If you need to take a break from soldering, this is a great project, and will make you look slightly less like a dumpster diver (which is, admittedly, also a cool past time though not stylish... just saying).

Photo by Stationary Hobo via Flickr CC

$6: Simple Solar Oven

We love solar ovens around here. Can't get enough of them. This is about as simple as they come, and a great way to get started trying to cook stuff on your porch and learn what the sun's rays can and can't accomplish when it comes to creating culinary delights. This easy project can be done for as little as $6. If the simple cardboard box shape isn't geek enough for you, we also have an idea for a solar oven that uses an old umbrella and tin foil. That baby needs to go in the middle of your front yard!

$8: Ikea-Style Laptop Stand

I have a problem with over-heating laptops. Both my PC and my Mac can go from pleasantly chilled to ready-to-burst-into-flames faster than it takes for me to open any program other than my Internet browser. Ensuring my laptop gets enough air circulation is a top priority. Because of this, I always have an eye out for awesome DIY laptop stands. I've tried cardboard cut-outs, and right now I'm using the metal rack from a roasting pan (appropriate, no?) so I think my next project might just be this awesome-looking minimalist laptop stand. It's certainly cheap enough!

Photo by Jenny Downing via Flickr CC

$15 Hydrogen Fuel Cell

Wow - we just kicked it up a notch. Laptop stands are so 3rd grade compared to making your own hydrogen fuel cell on your dining room table (since this is appropriate for 4th graders, and all). Scitoys has a great tutorial guiding you through building one of these with stuff around your house. The only part that might actually cost money is if you don't happen to have platinum coated nickel wire, or pure platinum wire (and gee, who wouldn't have that in a junk drawer somewhere?). That will run you somewhere around $15. But other than that, this awesome, quick but oh-so-cool project can be done basically for free.

$18: Indestructible Digital Camera

When people ask me how I got into photography, I tell them the truth: I accidentally sent my digital point-n-shoot camera flying through the park one night. It didn't exactly land softly. And while it was at the repair shop getting fixed, I went off and bought a very expensive camera and have been single-handedly funding the camera industry ever since. Or at least it feels that way. A far cheaper solution to meeting your photography needs is investing in a batch of Sugru. A set of 12 minipacks of assorted colors is $18 and that should be enough for you to complete the protective camera hack above....and spare you from spending more than you need to on repairs or new gear. I have a package of Sugru sitting in front of me and I'm padding up my electronic gadgets one by one...

Images via Joshua Zimmerman of BrownDogGadgets

$20: Solar Charger for iPhones

It's another awesome one from Joshua Zimmerman of BrownDogGadgets -- this time a solar charger made specifically for iPhones. Zimmerman notes that while he has created a lot of these chargers for cell phones, Apple gadgets don't always play nice with generic USB chargers. So, this one should do the trick. If you own any Apple devices, you'll like this cool project.

Photos by Joshua Zimmerman

$30 Solar Charger for Cell Phones

If you don't have any Apple devices to worry about, then this is Zimmerman's more generic solution for charging up your cell phone with the power of the sun. It's a handy device to have in your purse, backpack, glove box, etc for some back-up electricity on a bright day.

Photos by Keith, SolarPoweredGardener

Not Super Cheap But Super Rad: Sun-Tracking Solar Oven

Like I said, we love our solar ovens around here -- and this one is especially geeky. When you're done, your oven will automatically track the path of the sun so that you're cooking from sunrise to sunset. Instructable user Keith, aka SolarPoweredGardener, has provided the steps you need to make your very own. It's a fairly serious weekend warrior project, but after having completed the nine projects above, you'll be ready to tackle something big, right? Enjoy!
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Bioinspired Robotics

This robot fly, capable of lift-off, was created using layered micromachined composite structures. With a tiny carbon fiber body and wings made of thin plastic sheets, the fly was inspired by the way real insects move. See video...
From insects in your backyard, to creatures in the sea, to what you see in the mirror, this team draws inspiration from Nature to design a whole new class of smart robotic devices.
Many of the most advanced robots in use today are still far less sophisticated than ants that "self-organize" to build an ant hill, or termites that work together to build impressive, massive mounds in Africa. That is why Wyss scientists are taking their cues from the insect world to design and fabricate a new, "smarter" class of robotic devices that move and adapt like living creatures and harness the power of self assembly. They are working toward the day when an army of robo-bees, for example, will be able to pollinate crops just as well as "real" bees do.

Lead Projects and Technologies

RobobeeAutonomous Flying Microrobots
Writing the engineering "code" for meso-scale flying robots
Pop-up memsPop-Up MEMS
A new manufacturing technique enabling complex three-dimensional machines in the mesoscale
Swarm RoboticsSwarm Robotics
Autonomous robots forcollective construction
ExosuitSoft Exosuit
Lightweight suit to increase the wearer's strength and endurance

Immersive VR Enables Safe and Effective Control of Big Scary Robots

Industrial robots, as a rule, are not at all safe to be around. With a few exceptions, most of them live in safety cages, or depend on a sophisticated combination of hardware, software, and sensors to make sure that they don't accidentally, you know, purposefully disembowel whatever human is within immediate purposeful disembowelment range. This not only precludes humans working with robots directly, but it also means that whenever the robots screw something up, you have to power down all of that infrastructure before you can safely get in there to fix anything.
We can fix all of this, all of it, with immersive virtual reality.
Johns Hopkins' Computational and Interactive Robotics Laboratory has been developing an Immersive Virtual Robotics Environment (IVRE) that "enables a user to instruct, collaborate and otherwise interact with a robotic system either in simulation or in real-time via a virtual proxy." In other words, you can do stuff with robots in virtual reality where it looks like the robot's right there, but it's actually nowhere near you. This is a technique that could be valuable not just for big scary disembowely industrial robots, but also for less scary robots doing things in environments where a human really wouldn't want to be.

Beyond just virtual reality, the IVRE also offers augmented reality, in which users can visually access information about the robot, the environment, and what the robot is trying to do. There's a huge amount of potential for extendability here, and it could make tasks like the DARPA Robotics Challenge both easier and more accessible for people without robotics training. For example, if you want a robot to open a door or turn a valve, imagine if you could just pop into a virtual environment, virtually grab the robot's hands, and just get it to do what you want it to do directly. It's a simple yet powerful idea, and with the pending (we hope) commercial availability affordableof immersive VR hardware like the Oculus Rift, it'll be a simple yet powerful idea that lots of people (and robots) will be able to take advantage of.

Apple, Amazon, and Now Google: An Exciting Time for Robotics

This is a guest post. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not represent positions of IEEE Spectrum or the IEEE.
The recent robot-related news from Apple, Amazon, and Google shows serious momentum for the robotics industry. In case you missed it, here's a recap:
What does all this activity mean?
Andy Rubing and Meka Robotics M1
Andy Rubin and Meka M1 robot. Image: Karitsu/Flickr; Meka Robotics; + Fotor
First, more details.
From a New York Times article by John Markoff interviewing Google's Andy Rubin:
  • Google acquired seven tech companies in the last six months. Schaft, a Japanese start-up developing a humanoid robotIndustrial Perception, a Silicon Valley start-up that developed a computer vision system for loading and unloading trucks; Meka Robotics, a robot developer for academiaRedwood Robotics, a start-up intended to compete with the Baxter robot (and others) entering the small and medium-sized shop and factory marketplace; Bot & Dolly, a maker of robotic camera systems used for special effects such as in the movie "Gravity;" Autofuss, a design and marketing firm and a partner in Bot & Dolly; and Holomni, a maker of powered caster modules for omnidirectional vehicles.
  • Although Google won't disclose their plans, the article suggests that the company's initial market will be in manufacturing and logistics, including possibly electronics assembly that is mostly done by hand. "Manufacturing and logistics markets not being served by today's robotic technologies are clear opportunity markets," Rubin told the Times.
  • The article suggests that the new Google robots could be able to automate any or all of the processes from the supply chain to the distribution channels to the consumer's front door, thereby creating a massive opportunity.
  • Google is already experimenting with urban deliveries including making home deliveries for companies like Target, Walgreens, and others.
  • According to Markoff, "Mr. Rubin said he had pondered the possibility of a commercial effort in robotics for more than a decade. He has only recently come to think that a range of technologies have matured to the point where new kinds of automated systems can be commercialized."
From The SFGate Tech Chronicles by James Temple:
  • Google is transforming itself in many ways, and its new robotics division is another example of that. The company is constantly transforming its search engine into a sophisticated learning machine using AI tools. In fact, some of Google's AI talent might be moving over to the new Robotics Division.
  • Google has been hiring super brains such as Ray Kurzweil and Peter Norvig to head groups and divisions, some of which are working on product development and even hardware manufacturing (remember that Google acquired Motorola, which could be a client for assembly and material-handling robots and a resource of factories, equipment, and manpower).
  • "Google's move into robotics is likely to draw renewed attention and money into the space," said Brian Gerkey (CEO of the Open Source Robotics Foundation) in the article. "It's a pretty exciting day for robotics when someone like Google makes an investment like that in robots, others are likely to follow suit. It can only spur investment and innovation."
From Bloomberg News by Adam Satariano:
  • Apple is investing $10.5 billion in new automation technologies and robotics to, among other things, polish the iPhone 5C plastic cover, carve the MacBook's aluminum body, and test and inspect gear for iPhone and iPad lenses.
  • Apple invested $6.5 billion on similar robotics and factory automation equipment in their previous fiscal year.
For a review of the CBS 60 Minutes interview of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Charlie Rose, see my post, "Jeff Bezos Reaches for Tip of UAS Iceberg."
From a New York Times article by Markoff about the Boston Dynamics acquisition:
  • Markoff writes: "The deal is also the clearest indication yet that Google is intent on building a new class of autonomous systems that might do anything from warehouse work to package delivery and even elder care."
  • Boston Dynamics is a 1992 spin-off from MIT, and many of its robots have been feature in popular YouTube videos. One of their BigDog videos has been watched by more than 15 million times; and a video of their ATLAS robot, the robotic platform given to some of the DARPA Robotics Challenge teams, has already passed the 2.5 million view mark.
  • This is not an insignificant acquisition. An ongoing business employing 80-plus highly paid engineers and scientists has to have cost Google a very high amount, perhaps in the low 9 figures.
  • Boston Dynamics founder Marc Raibert was quoted in the article: "I am excited by Andy and Google's ability to think very, very big, with the resources to make it happen."
So what's my take on these recent developments?
I think the above quote from Brian Gerkey sums up things nicely: It's a pretty exciting day for robotics when Google, Apple, and Amazon ALL invest in robots and related tech. Others are likely to follow, spurring further investment and innovation. Up until now, four big European and Japanese firms (Kuka, ABB, Fanuc, and Yaskawa Motoman) dominated the well-established industrial robotics sector, while smaller companies (including U.S. firms like iRobot and Intuitive Surgical) attempted to build and grow the consumer and service robotics markets.
So it's exciting to imagine that in the remainder of this decade we may see amazing new robotics products from a variety of new providers like Apple, Amazon, and Google.
What robot or robotic application you wish these companies would create?
Frank Tobe is the editor of The Robot Report. This post originally appeared in his personal blog, Everything Robotic.

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