Vampire Ball 3, another epic weekend

Well, I’m more or less recovered now from another convention weekend. Yet again, Sean Harry has proven that he can throw a damn fine party. This time it was the 3rd Annual Vampire Ball held at the Renaissance Hotel, Heathrow, London. It was my sixth convention since I was introduced to them in 2010, and my third one at the Renaissance. Its a fantastic venue with friendly staff who don’t mind the insane antics of a bunch of geeks as they take over the lobby. We decided to travel down a day early so that I was more recovered after the long drive. I’m so glad we did seeing as it took over six hours to drive there thanks to the M40 being at a standstill. It also gave us a chance to catch up with some of the other regulars.

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It flew!

I got a stable flight out of my quadcopter at last.

I played it safe, and took it to the parents’ house seeing as they have a larger garden than I do, and made a few test flights. Only a low level hover, but it was controlled, albeit very roughly. Just goes to show how much practice it is going to take before I can start flying it properly. It wasn’t the most stable of flights I must say, I think amongst other things the propellers and motors all need balancing. It all was going fairly well until I got a bit to cocky and lost control. Only broke a propeller, so not too bad. Since then I’ve also secured the flight controller (an OpenPilot Copter Control) a bit better, which will hopefully keep it level and prevent any major drift and I’m going to make sure the motors are balanced. One recent purchase was a pan/tilt platform so I can put a cheap cam on the front to get a birdseye view of the flight. I’m very tempted to get a full FPV rig too, but I think it’ll be better to walk before I run.

Initial flights were in a + orientation, with one rotor being at the front. I’ve since changed that to an X orientation which means that there are two rotors at the front and the forward direction is in the middle of these. This makes attaching a camera a lot easier, and is the prefered orientation for FPV flying, so might as well get used to it from the start. I could do with some coloured propeller blades so that I can see which way is forward from a distance. Either that, or I may attach some LED strips to the two front arms.

In other news, I’m just building a new hotend for my printer. After the last .5mm one backed up, I tried the .25mm nozzle I got but I think that was a bit too ambitious. After a few hours of tweaking settings, I still couldn’t get a decent reliable print out of it. I’m just waiting for the fire cement to set properly on the new one, and then I just have to solder the wires onto it and mount it. One thing that is being a pain is the thermistor legs are very thin and fragile. I’ve already broken two and they aren’t the cheapest of components. They definitely need to be handled with care and strengthened up.

I also nearly melted another MOSFET buy hooking up the heated bed. Checking afterwards, the bed has a very low resistance (approx 1.5 ohm) which means the MOSFET gets very hot rather quickly. After a bit of digging in the forums, it was suggested that I put a heatsink on it. Nice idea, and easy solution, except the Sanguinololu board that I’m using has very little room to attach one. I’ve got a few different ones to try, and hopefully I can get one fastened on.

So, if the hotend is set by this evening, I may get chance to hook it up and give it a test! I may actually finish this project at some point!

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Nearly there! The hotends have arrived!

I got a nice parcel delivered today. Two nicely build hotends for my new Prusa Reprap. After all the issues with the Huxley, the Prusa has been a total doddle. The last piece I needed for it was a hotend, and after having some issues sourcing some of the components, I had a look on eBay for any pre-built ones. I found one guy shipping some from Poland that looked perfect for what I needed, not only did they have all the molex connectors already done in a way that is compatible with my Sanguinololu board, but he was offering a twin pack with one .5mm and one .25mm nozel. Oh, and a pre hobbed bolt too!

Prusa build

So, with the body built and the electronics tested, all I have to do is figure out how to attach the hotend and I can start building. I’ve already posted a video a few days ago of the body moving nicely, which is further than I ever got with the Huxley. Never know, maybe by this weekend I’ll be able to print something! Just have to finish work first.

Here’s the video of the first test of the electronics.

Prusa build

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Huxley on Hold

I didn’t want to do it, but I’ve had to give up on my Techzonecom model Huxley printer. I’ve spent another couple of hours on it today and decided it just isn’t worth the hassle. It certainly helped that I found someone on eBay selling printed parts for a Prusa for a decent price.

The Huxley isn’t totally lost, there are many options open to me to get it working, once I have a working printer. Its a chicken and egg problem.

One thing I do have to say, and it seems I’m getting backed up on the forums about this, is never buy anything from TechZone Communications. They seem to have lost the plot and have a long stream of unhappy customers, as well as a below par product. Besides missing parts in the kit I received, and electronics that burst into flame, it also in my opinion is a poorly designed reprap printer. Captive nuts are needed to be melted into the plastic parts, the extruder is external to the main printer with no easy way to mount it and the electronics are just shoddy.

I bought my kit via a UK company called RepRap Central who it turns out are resellers of TechZoneCom kits. I didn’t know this before I bought it, and they don’t make any mention to TechZoneCom. They do however sell other brands of printers, including MakerBot. Communications with RepRap Central are pretty good, and they do have good prices on filament.

So, I’ve got the plastic parts for a Prusa on order, I’ve got plenty of hardware, I’ve got a completed Gen 7 electronics kit built. Hopefully the parts will be arriving next week, and I can have a start at building it. Unfortunately, I’m off to the states for a while for work, so its going to get put on hold for a little while.

Hopefully the Prusa will be a little easier.

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Ebooks and why we still need to cut down trees…

I haven’t done much in the way of geek things over the past week, and I’ve been meaning to have this rant, so here we go.

I like gadgets. I have a lot of them, some may say too many, but I say not enough! I’ve even had an e-reader, and am quite impressed with e-ink technology. What I don’t like is the actual e-books, or rather how they are sold.

Nothing can compare to an actual physical dead tree version of a book. Its great to have a book in your hands, its just a much more pleasant experience. E-books however are handy. They’re great for taking on holidays, much easier having a device with hundreds of books on than carrying around a stack of heavy paperbacks. Also, a lot of documentation comes as downloadable PDF files which is so much easier to read on e-ink device than an LCD screen.

A lot of my issues surround DRM and price.  I’ve got issues with DRM on any format or media, but on e-books it is especially bad, compounded by the fact that e-books are generally only a little cheaper than their physical counterpart.

With a real book, you can

  • Lend it to a friend
  • Give it to a friend
  • Take it to a second hand shop, and swap it
  • Keep it forever

All these points have one thing in common. Ownership. You never actually own an e-book, you’ve just got it on long term loan from the seller. You aren’t allowed to resell the book at all, and even lending it to someone is hard enough. Woe betide if you want to try a different e-reader, you’re left with having to either illegally strip the DRM from the book, or buy it again.

If the seller goes out of business, you will more than likely lose access to your books. Don’t think this will happen because of the size of the company? Well in 2007, Virgin’s downloadable music store decided it wasn’t making enough money, so withdrew from the business. Suddenly all the music you bought through that service was unusable. Or maybe the seller decides that they sold the book by accident, as Amazon did with 1984. They removed access to the book to stop you reading it.

The last point above is not just about DRM or ownership as such, its down to the fact that the digital world moves so fast. The current e-book formats may not be around in five or ten years, but I have books on my shelves that I remember buying whilst still at primary school, nearly thirty years ago. I also have books that are older than me, that were picked up from second hand bookshops. These are out of print and unavailable from any e-book retailer. In another thirty years, will I still have a functioning e-reader that will read the current formats? Projects to read digital media that is less than twenty years old are a big undertaking these days, but I’ll still have books on shelves that I can simply pick up and read.

Of course, to compound all this, e-books are sold at a ridiculous price. As I’ve already mentioned, you are simply renting these books and never really own them, but the price difference doesn’t reflect this. Some e-books are still being sold at hardback prices, when the actual cost of manufacture is a moot point. A lot of my previous issues could be overlooked if they would simply charge a reasonable amount for the books. If a book was under a pound to purchase (rent), then I would think nothing of paying for it, and I may even take more of a risk on an unknown author. I find myself being put off buying a book these days, even a physical one, because the prices are so high. The pricing model has worked for smartphone apps, so why can’t it work with books?

I love reading, I love books, and I love gadgets. Unfortunately there is no way currently for me to legally use e-books. If I want an MP3, I buy the CD and rip it. If I want to store my DVDs on my network, I can rip them too if they don’t already come with a digital version. This can’t be done with books unless you go to the trouble of buying or building a book scanner. I could use the kindle app and then strip the DRM out of the file, but I don’t want to do this as I shouldn’t have to, and I’m not going to give Amazon any of my money whilst they still insist on running this monopoly. I do need to say, it is not just Amazon. All other e-book sellers work in the same way, and this could be due to the publishers, but it is still wrong.

Right, rant over. I’m going to go to bed and read a good, dead tree, book.


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It flew… briefly


There is a 'copter there somewhere.

Well, the quadcopter flew briefly. Twice.

I managed to get a very short flight before a tree jumped in my way and I lost control. Thankfully not much damage, just some smashed blades and a couple of motors had broke free. I quickly repaired it and went out for another try.

Unfortunately, the second flight ended with quite a bit more damage. I think the main frame had been weakened by the first crash, so after a bit of a heavy landing, it totally buckled. Still, the second flight did last a bit longer, and it seemed to fly well. Out of all this I’ve learnt a few things:

  1. Stay out of the way of trees
  2. 10mm dowling is not strong enough to survive a heavy landing
  3. The frame needs to be a lot more robust and accurate to fly steady.

So, with this new knowledge, I’ve ordered a frame kit which will hopefully arrive in a few days and prove to be a bit more reliable. Especially as it has landing gear, which my frame didn’t. This should keep me going until I finish my printer and can design a nice custom printed ‘copter. Might also have a go at balancing my motors and props.

Still waiting for the replacement parts for my printer. Some arrived the other day, but they forgot to include the main circuit board. ie, the part that burst into flames and I can’t progress without. Not impressed.

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Hobby electronic links

Since deciding to renew my interest in electronics over the past few months, I’ve tried various websites for supplying components and parts, along with some good sites for learning and ideas. I thought I’d do a quick write up of some of my favourites and put it all in one place.

Firstly, lets start with components. You will always need somewhere to get all your bits from, as well as tools and consumables. Here’s a few sites that I’ve found both handy and reliable. I do like to be able to get everything I need from one place, but I haven’t yet found a one stop shop for everything, but I have managed to narrow it down to just a few that will satisfy most of my needs.

  • Bitsbox – This is a great site to get your basic components from. They are cheap, well stocked, and have a nice simple website to use. You won’t find things like Arduinos, or Sparkfun kits, but you will find just about all the basics you could ever need. Components can be ordered in singles, or bulk, and delivery is pretty rapid. I tend to use Bitsbox to stock up on standard things like resistors, capacitors, common chips, and other non specialist components.
  • Proto-Pic – This is where you go for the more ‘building block’ style components. Things like Arduino, Sparkfun, sensors boards, breakout boards, etc. Great place with a nice easy to use website. I do find that I need to watch my spending here. It is too easy to keep loading up the basket with fun parts, especially shiny things like LEDs. There is a lot going on now in hobby electronics where you buy pre built component modules and link them up for a project, rather than scratch built circuits. Good communication from the staff here, and will part ship your order if they are having trouble with stock, instead of having you wait.
  • Cool Components – Very similar to Proto-Pic. You should be able to find what you want in one of these two stores. I’ve dealt more with Proto-Pic than Cool Components, but more for familiarity than any other reason.
  • Jeelabs – This is a slightly odd case, and is a more specialised shop than the rest. I’ve been working a lot with JeeNodes, and this is the place to source them from. Its a one man shop, but he is designer, builder, and shipper. He also provides a lot of information, not only on how to use his products, but also in general electronics knowledge.
  • Unmanned Tech – Not exactly in the electronics section, but this is where I get my quadcopter autopilot components from. I just wanted to mention it here because the support that is given is great. Very friendly and actually want to help.

Next, lets look information sites. These are places to go for learning more about electronics, techniques, and news.

  • Jeelabs Blog – As mentioned above, Jeelabs provides JeeNodes, along with other modules to go with them. The blog provides a lot of information about how to use their products, how they were designed, and also general information such as circuit design, how to improve your arduino sketches (especially making them low power), and walks you through good ways to measure and bug trace your own circuits. Well worth following.
  • EEVBlog – A great, fun blog by a mad aussie. (Are there any other types?!) He has a regular video blog on a fairly wide range of electronics subjects, including reviews on lab equipment, tear downs of new gadgets, and instructions on circuit design. He’s now making a living from this blog after having many years work experience in electronics. Videos are released on a pretty frequent basis and are well worth a watch just for his enthusiasm!
  • Instructables – This site is just fantastic. People from all over the world with a passion for making things can upload full build instructions to this site for all to read and reproduce. Its not just electronics here either! Anything that involves making things can be found here, from needle work to metal work! The information is free, but it is worth signing up for a full members account which allows you to view the instructables in a single page, rather than multi-page, and also download it as a PDF. Handy for putting onto an e-reader or similar. Great place to look for ideas for projects, or help on something you’re working on.
  • Makezine – Makers are taking over, and this is the place that pretty much summarises the movement.
  • Thingiverse – If you have a 3d printer, laser cutter, or cnc mill (or at least access to one), then you can find many actual objects available to download to be produced. The idea being, if you need something, and design it, you can then upload it to this site for anyone else to produce for themselves. An open source object library.

Thats it for the main part. A few honourable mentions go to RepRap for all your 3d printing needs, and also Youtube. There are many many videos there that are well worth a watch.


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