LEGO Mindstorms NXT: Perfect Toy for Engineers who Don’t Have a Life (like me)

07/02/2006: This past Thursday, I received my LEGO Mindstorms NXT robotics kit in the mail. It is not supposed to officially launch until August, but those of us who pre-ordered were pleasantly-surprised with an early shipment.

When most people think of LEGOs, the first thing that comes to mind is building bricks for kids. While that is certainly a huge part of LEGO’s market, the Mindstorms products are hugely popular among electronics enthusiasts, hobbyists, engineers, and geeks of all stripes. One may also argue that geeks are really kids in adult bodies, but I digress… 😉

The Mindstorms NXT kit is the new generation of Mindstorms products; the “brick”–the programmable controller–is fully-programmable in Microsoft .NET (the most common languages, of course, being C# and VB.NET). If you are a Mac user, there is nothing to fear: the brick is also programmable within a Mac environment.

Those who loathe programming languages can use a very intuitive, graphical programming interface; however, delving into the code allows for optimum functionality. Mindstorms NXT comes with touch, light, sound, and ultrasonic sensors, in addition to three servomotors. This on top of an assortment of LEGO attachments–connectors, rods, arms, gears, wheels, etc.–with which one can build simple and complex robots.

The kit also comes with a startup that allows one to build a robot inside 30 minutes. The instructions were easy to follow, and the setup time was about 30 minutes. If you have a cat, count on adding about 30 minutes to your setup time!

The programming interface and servomotors are fascinating tools, and–if I am not careful–I will find myself staying up later than I ought to. I played with it last night until about midnight, and almost missed the 8:00 church service this morning.

At about $250, the kit is reasonably-priced. (I sold a firearm I didn’t like in order to raise the money.) RadioShack’s VEX kit–which is based more on Erector set tools–runs for $300.

In addition to adult hobbyists, this is an excellent learning tool for junior high and high school students. It is a neat way to gain exposure to concepts in physics, engineering mechanics, and computer programming.

If you have household pets, the Mindstorms robots are great for driving them nuts. 😉

Space Elevator? You Gotta Be Kidding Me?

02/03/2006: I love reading SERVO magazine (which caters to amateur robotics enthusiasts). Most of the articles are fascinating, and they do a good job of providing resources and practical tips for those who wish to design, build, and experiment with robotics.

However, in the February 2006 edition, a particular article caught my attention. Roger Gilbertson, who founded the first robotics site on the Internet, wrote an article about the concept of a Space Elevator, which would function as a sort of gondola system that would transport people into orbit.

Gilbertson is undoubtedly a fine engineer, and I know that many science fiction buffs love to dwell on things that are impossible today because they can become tomorrow’s reality, and I know that NASA has spent a buttload of our tax dollars exploring this concept.

However, my BS detector has gone off the scale on this one! 😉

Anyone who has struggled through a strength of materials class (also called solid mechanics in many fine engineering schools) knows that this would make the Highway to Nowhere look like a good investment.

This elevator would require a static structure extending from the earth’s surface to nearly 100,000 kilometers. Doing the math, this structure would extend 62,000 miles! That’s almost enough material to circle the world three times!!! Whatever these nut-brains are smoking, I want it!

A wind gust of 100 mph, which would not be uncommon, would create bending stresses that no human-designed structure could withstand.

And that does not account for dynamic loading. Even a small wind gust–or a slight earthquake–could induce resonance. (Translation: bye-bye elevator!) A structure of such magnitude–if it collapsed–would be a grave threat to many countries.

Even if you can account for the engineering challenges, you haven’t accounted for the economics. Such a design–even if feasibl–would require dedication of engineering talent, investment capital, materials, equipment, supercomputer time, and labor. Remember, these resources would have to be diverted from other projects that are capital intensive. This would drive the cost way beyond the Milky Way galaxy.

And what would the potential benefits be? Getting people into orbit? We already have that capacity. We even have private entities–led by the likes of Burt Rutan–who are accomplishing this in economical fashion.

We already have–and have demonstrated–the means to explore space. We have many satellites in orbit. We have advanced telescopes in space. We have sent men to the moon. We have sent many astronauts (male and female) into orbit, with some of them spending years in space.

We need the Space Elevator like we need cow flatulence research.

Dreaming big is one thing, but good engineering means knowing a pipe dream when you see one.