Last Saturday I was part of the Baltimore Robot Fest. The event took place at the National Electronics Museum in Baltimore. All sorts of cool nerds came to share their robots. Make Magazine held a workshop, a ring was set up for battle bots, the Baltimore SDIY Group played some incredible electronic music, and many other fantastic groups brought great projects. The Museum was a great location for the event. Modern robotics and DIY projects were mixed in with WWII radar systems, ancient tube computers and even an Enigma cipher machine.

National Electronics Museum

The technology on display in the Museum was fascinating and much of it was incredibly beautiful. I love the early radar and navigation systems built with vacuum tubes. The barrel sized computers have far less computing power than a tiny modern processor, but the physicality of the components is fascinating to me. The structure of a microprocessor is far beyond my own understanding and in many cases the structural details are secret anyway. The layout of the components of these old systems are, although still quite complex, visible, and for me the handmade components have a lot more personality.

radar system

Another fascinating artifact is their Enigma machine. The Enigma is a message encoder created and used by the Germans in WWII. A message is typed into the machine on a typewriter like keypad and the encrypted message is returned. Then the encrypted message is put back into another Enigma and the original message is returned. The encryption is based on a simple cipher in which each letter is replaced by another; however, what was incredible about the machine is that the cipher changed every character. To decode a message the starting cipher would also have to be known. The code was well done it was not cracked until one of the machines was captured.

Rep Rap: Open Source 3d Printer

One of my favorite projects at Robot Fest, and something I’ve been following for a while online is the RepRap 3d printer. The project is designed to make 3d printing affordable for everyone. The machine’s designs are completely open source and can be downloaded from the project website along with the software to run it. The machine’s electronics are based on another popular open source project, the Arduino.

The machine works by maneuvering an extruder in two dimensions over a stage which can move up and down. A thread of plastic or other material is fed into the extruder which lays down a thin layer in the desired shape. The stage then shifts down and another layer is added. The structure of the final product is still quite visible, but is accurate enough to make watertight objects and parts which snap together. It’s great for prototyping but the plastics used (often styrene) are durable and functional. The machine has even been used to create wax models to be used in the lost was method of metal casting.

reprap open source 3d printer

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the RepRap printer is that it is designed to be replicate itself. The structure is comprised of steel rods and plastic parts. All of the plastic parts are designed to be printable with the RepRap making it largely self replicating. Newer versions are even working towards printing circuit boards. Each part can also be produced from a number of laser cut components and small bolts, but the solid plastic pieces are actually more structurally sound.

Baltimore SDIY Group

The Robot Fest also included a performance by the Baltimore SDIY Group. They are a collective of musicians focusing on DIY electronic music and home brew sound technology. Their performance was a strange experience. Set up in the library of the museum, the members filled the space with stacks of synthesizers, theremins, speakers, sound processors, monitors, and more boxes covered in audio jacks than I’m certain they could keep track of.

With no apparent communication they sat for hours building a dense sounds scape which kept offering new sounds and maintained a good mix of complex harmonization and subtle tensions.



This years Robot Fest also fostered a new relationship with the Maryland Institute College of Art. Logo, poster, and T-shirt designs were created by design students. Runner-up designs were also shown in one of the galleries during the event. My Electronics for Art and Design class (in the Interactive Media department) build a number of projects for the fest, including interactive sculptural installations, electronic games, an automated camera track. I built an Arduino based synthesizer using an interface programmed in Processing. This project will also be up here soon.


You can see a few more pictures from Robot Fest and the National Electronics Museum on my flickr.