As always, our trip to Newcastle for the UK Maker Faire was an absolute treat. We've already published our interview with Ian Simmons, the man responsible for bringing the event over from the US, but he wasn't the only person we spoke to. Here are a few of our personal highlights from the two-day extravaganza - though rest assured there was plenty more to talk about, from the impressive Lords of Lightning and their Tesla coils to Mitch Altman's ever-popular soldering workshop, and we found ourselves wishing the weekend was at least a couple of days longer!
Despite having no moving parts or shiny flashing lights, Copenhagen Suborbitals was a crowd-pleaser - especially among the younger visitors, who took delight in clambering around and into the test capsule the team hopes to take into space in an incredibly ambitious crowd-funded amateur manned spaceflight programme. "Bringing a test capsule we've just been using to test seating positions and stuff like that and seeing the kids crawl all over it is just brilliant," laughed logistics lead Morten Bulskov as a young visitor does exactly that, "and the good thing is it's made out of steel, so they can't really break it. If they can, I will give them a medal!"
The idea of amateur spaceflight, even suborbital, would have been science fiction just a few decades ago, but Morten is clear that his team is on-track to reach its goal within the next decade. "The technology we use is based in the 60s, we don't need any more to go above 100km, we don't need to make it more advanced than that, but at the same time the electronics that were more or less a bus back in the 60s we pretty much have in two small aluminium boxes today controlling the rocket," he explains. "The whole availability of quite high tech at just the street level, it just makes it easier. The whole [smart]phone development has meant you can get actually powerful computers in small sizes and you can control a rocket much, much more easily than you could just ten years, fifteen years ago."
Matthew Little's projects are smaller, but of no lesser interest to the crowd. A member of Nottingham Hackspace and founder of The Curious Electric Company, Matthew specialises in soldering kits with an environmental bent. "We've got a Bat Listener, [which] listens to the ultrasonic noises of bats," he enthuses, pointing the device an an LCD screen with a backlight emitting noise at roughly the same frequency to elicit a squeal from the speaker, "we've got a little oscilloscope here, we've also got a DIY solar charger that recharges some AA batteries and it's also got a 5V output, we've got a Mouse Bot here which is an interactive robot that you build yourself, it's got different sensors which measure light and touch, and we've got the solar-powered Solar Roller which fills up a capacitor with solar power and then shoots off."
Each device has been carefully developed or chosen from an existing design with one purpose in mind: education. "All these kits are meant to be for beginners - so they're learning to solder, they're learning to build hardware - and the end result is something that they can use in the future to interact with some part of the environment," Matthew, who previously founded a renewable energy firm, explains. "Trying to stay curious about the world around you and get involved and [we're] definitely very interested in both the environmental stuff and people making stuff, so that's the kind of clash of the two here."
A rather larger stand is occupied by Maker Space, a collaborative workshop local to Newcastle, which is showing off an automated penguin racing system with a wealth of features. "This is based on a toy that I always wanted as a kid called Penguin Race, where the penguins go up some steps and just go down a small slide on a mountain," explains Iain Yarnall, who came up with the crowd-pleasing concept. "Floated the idea, it quickly became a Tyneside thing, and then everyone started to pitch in and things happened, and it all just escalated from there, and just got all the things we've got today."
Those things range from a speed camera which flashes before reporting the velocity of each 3D-printed penguin - anything up to five miles an hour, if their wheels have recently been oiled - to RFID tags on the base of each penguin, which are scanned to drive an automated leaderboard. "We partly joke about this in itself, we'll say that somebody jokes about it and somebody else builds it, but that is just exactly what happens," laughs Alistair MacDonald, who was responsible for the clever stepped lift mechanism driven from a windscreen motor. "I mean, that's how we RFID-tagged all the penguins, that's why we've got a speed trap for them: somebody said it as a joke, and we did it."
Rather more sedate robotics are found at the Mirobot stand, where inventor Ben Pirt is showing off his open-hardware Wi-Fi-connected laser-cut robot kits. "It's all Arduino-based, so there's an Arduino Pro Mini on there, for the Arduino-spotters, and then there's the becoming-ubiquitous ESP8266 Wi-Fi module," Ben explains, pointing to the various parts on a pair of Mirobots busily drawing patterns on a sheet of paper. "With those two things it's running websockets, it's got a web server on board, DNS, it's a fully-featured little robot."
The software side is also on the mind of Theo Lasers' Grant Macauley, who is showing off a range of laser-cut laser-cutters whose intriguing design and low cost are only part of their appeal. "When I started out with the concept of this I wanted it for a seven-year-old to be able to build it and a seven-year-old to use it," Grant explains, patting the top of his entry-level design powered by a 1W engraving diode. "I haven't quite managed the first one but I have the second one. I've got a... Cutter Capture, I'm calling it, which is a wrapper around the Sketchy app to work with the laser cutter, so you can take a photo, it'll caricature the same as Sketchy, beam it over Bluetooth, and then do it on wood or whatever you want to engrave it on or cut it on."
As with Mirobot, Grant is releasing the software and hardware for his Theo laser cutters under a permissive licence. "Whatever happens, however it's going to go out at this level, it's easy enough to copy, right? I want to give something back to the community and makers," he explains. "And that's where Theo is. Then I want to make a Kickstarter on this, I want to start the business, get the business going, employ people, and get a premises in Glasgow where I live, then move on to phase three of same idea: same concept, but metalise it up, make a metal, robust version of this. But this is me giving back as well as launching my own business."
York Hackspace's stand was as popular as ever thanks to the return of collaborative space-disaster simulator Spacehack, but a pair of relatively unassuming boxes were of even more interest: entire homebrew computers, built using field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs). "I made this just as a hobby project, mostly just to prove to myself that I knew how to build a computer, and so it's the simplest possible computer that I could come up with that can do something, well, perhaps not useful, but meaningful," laughs creator Daniel Bailey as he flips the switches that program the C88 microcomputer. "Then I decided that's not big enough, I'm going to do a bigger one, and that's why I made the 32-bit one."
The C3232, a logical name for Daniel's 32-bit successor the C88, boasts a number of improvements: its use of a 32x32 grid makes it able to run programs written for the Manchester Small-Scale Experimental Machine, more commonly known as the Baby and remembered as the first stored-programme computer, while a second CPU mode means it can run code written for the C88, and a third will allow more complex programs to be written specifically for the C3232 itself. Programming a 32-bit system using direct-memory toggle switches, though, isn't easy. "It does take a long time to toggle in the program," Daniel admits, describing his plan to build a modern incarnation of a punch-card reader to make things easier. "I did toggle this one in once, and decided I don't want to do that again!"
With yet more to enjoy - including a turn on the always-popular DoES Liverpool Spaced Invaders shooting gallery, for which a queue quickly forms and rarely dissipates until well after official closing time - we can safely say visitors to this year's Maker Faire UK didn't leave disappointed, and we're already looking forward to next year's event!