Thursday, November 20, 2008

Prototype This

Is anybody but me watching this Discovery Channel show? It's my new Mythbusters / Junkyard Wars, I absolutely love it.

The premise, set within the first 5 minutes, has a handful of engineers brainstorming a real physical world problem. Previous examples have included a "traffic busting car" that would actually rise up on stilts to drive over traffic jams, telepresence "boxing robots" for the videogame of the future, and right now I'm watching them build a robotic firefighter.

They then set about solving the problem. The engineers include a mechanical / robotics guy, an electrical engineer, a software guy, and somebody else who at the moment escapes me.

It is a fascinating look at what it means to prototype, particularly in the real world (as opposed to just a software prototype). They're trying to solve a real problem. They look at the constraints of physics, but not necessarily of cost. In other words, they focus on the variables that cannot be changed, knowing that the others can. They use whatever new technology they want. They typically have a fixed time window of 2 weeks to solve the problem, to keep them from just brainstorming it forever and never building anything.

The end result is always fascinating. It works. It's more than a cobble-together, but not the kind of thing you'd say "Oh yeah, I'll buy that." But what they do is prove a concept. They actually made a car get up on stilts (automatically), and drive over traffic. It even parked itself sideways, very impressive.

Right now I'm watching the robot firefighter episode and it's just all the more impressive. They train with firefighters to appreciate the problems, which include things like monitoring oxygen levels, finding victims in a dark room, and getting equipment up the stairs. They then go about trying to improve conditions for the fighters by creating some assistive devices, such as a heads-up display that shows oxygen levels and includes a thermal camera. If someone took half these ideas and made them real, it would make a serious improvement to a very real problem.


John said...

Duane, How did the custom mobius bracelet turnout? I am looking to do the same.

Duane said... cross. The Mobius bracelet stories are all over at my other blog, Shakespeare Geek: