Page last updated at 10:36 GMT, Thursday, 25 March 2010

Tech Know: Meeting the makers

LJ Rich meets the people who race drills at nearly 30mph

Mark Ward
Technology correspondent, BBC News

Often being a maker, crafter or hacker is about the small things such as threading a needle or soldering the slim legs of an LED to a circuit board.

Then there are times when it is about big things. When all you need is spectacle, sound, lights and speed. The second UK Maker Faire in Newcastle Upon Tyne delivered on that need.

In 2010, the event was held inside the city's Centre for Life and Discovery which rang to the buzzing, cacophonous sounds of one million volt tesla coils being used as a musical instrument.

Robot horse, Science Fest
The show let young and old get to grips with hardware

"We make music out of sparks," said Karim Ladha, the creator of the tesla organ. The coils are connected to a keyboard and, thanks to a microcontroller that controls the number of sparks produced per second, translates notes into leaping arcs of electricity and vast amounts of noise.

The Tesla organ, the most advanced in the world according to Mr Ladha, drew huge crowds every time it played. Spectators could only grin at each other and give a thumbs up, as talking over the vast buzzing noise it generated was impossible.

Electronic musical instruments were a theme at the show with start-up Sonodrome showing off its bespoke creations.

One such, as used by musical maven Bill Bailey, is the Pocket Sized Oscillator or Posc which kicks out a huge range of sounds, everything from beeps and boops familiar from 8-bit video games to Theremin type wails and fuzzbox feedback.

All the devices produced by Sonodrome, including the Tubby Amp and the Posc, are released under a creative commons licence and can be bought in kit form or as finished products.

Speed kings

The Maker Faire had many visual as well as audible treats to offer visitors.

Hacking and cooking, Edible Wearable
As well as hardware, the Maker Faire featured softer stuff

Outside was a demonstration of power tool drag racing overseen by veteran robot maker Grant Cooper.

Races were between stock or modified power tools, often belt sanders, along a straight 75-foot track. Mr Cooper has one made from four chainsaws.

Stock drag racers come straight from the shelves of DIY stores and manage to finish the track at a stately pace. In the stock class, the only modification is the addition of bumper bars to keep the racer on track.

Modified racers have the revs turned up and often have a custom built chassis. These blast down the track in only a few seconds. One of the faster models on show is made of two 4.5in (11.4cm) angle grinders. One grinder drives each set of wheels and the drag racer can reach speeds in excess of 20mph (32kph).

The UK championships for power tool drag racing will be held in September at the Fleet Air Arm museum in Somerset.

Cube king

Holding court in the centre of the upper floor was RuBot II, the world's fastest Rubik's cube-solving robot.

It returns a mixed-up cube back to its ground state of all blocks of the same colour on the same face in 25 seconds, on average.

Avionics engineer Pete Redmond created Rubot II and put together the algorithm it uses to solve the cube. It needs an algorithm because it would be impossible to solve the cube quickly any other way.

Working out all possible combinations for the cube and sorting through them to see which one the robot was dealing with could take decades.

Maker Faire 2010
The Faire is all about hands-on demonstrations.

"There are 43 quintillion combinations for the Rubik's Cube," said Mr Redmond. "I've not tried them all."

Close by RuBot II was artist Giles Walker's installation of three drunken robots. One was permanently vomiting while the other two chatted and tried to cadge cigarettes off passers-by.

"They are not functional robots," he said, "they are dysfunctional robots."

Mr Walker began producing robot works using scrap cars and his creations have got more sophisticated along with the cars he uses.

"It's got easier because now cars have sensors and all kinds of things you can use," he said.

His latest creation is a homeless robot that Mr Walker has put on the streets of London. It talks to pedestrians using one of 200 interviews Mr Walker recorded with London's homeless.

Downstairs at the Maker Faire Peter Reynolds of the UK Robot Humanoid Group was using the show as a rallying point to get like-minded people together and talking.

A veteran robot maker and former contestant on the Robot Wars TV show, Mr Reynolds' most recent creation was a robot that conducted interviews backstage at the Brit Awards.

At the Maker Faire, Mr Reynolds was more interested in reaching out to other robot markers rather than popstars. He wants to tap into the disparate groups of robot makers spread around the UK and get them into a more coherent group.

It would be great, he said, if every UK city ended up with a robot group like in the US. But he'll be happy as long as people are talking and meeting.

"We don't mind if they come to our website or not," he said. "We just want to get a bit of a movement together."

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