Our friendly journalist Gareth Halfacree recently attended the first Liverpool MakeFest event on our behalf, talking to the thronging crowds find out what's hot in the maker world at the minute. This series of Focus On features takes a look at some of the event's exhibitors, finding out what they're up to and what makes them tick.
Located opposite Edge Hill's interactive art workshop on the top floor of the Liverpool Central Library, the Dark Water Foundation is drawing a crowd. Partly, that's thanks to the presence of vast quantities of Lego - "every time you see Lego, people are attracted," Barry Getty laughs, "we have children of all ages taking part!" Partly, it's due to being the only workshop - the only exhibit, in fact - to feature a fish tank, filled with water but a surprising lack of fish. The reason: the Foundation is teaching attendees to build low-cost remote-operated submersible vehicles, which are to run a splash gauntlet in the tank once the build is complete.
"They have the full kit to build an ROV [remote operated vehicle], so they'll build the frame, and the motors, and buoyancy tanks" Barry explains, gesturing at the table which has every available space filled with makers. "Then the aim is that we're going to run a test in the tank, and they have to go and recover treasure from the pirate ship and bring it back. It's all about them first building the kit and then getting the weight of the Lego right, so it'll move up and down based on the buoyancy, then it's all on control, how you control the three motors. It gets quite intense, it's more than just playing with Lego!"
The idea of introducing people to robotics with a submersible build seems odd, but it's central to Barry's campaign. "We're a non-profit," he explains of the Foundation for which he is responsible, "and we're trying to encourage people to do underwater robotics rather than on-land." That does, of course, lead to certain challenges: "We're only using low-voltage, but if they were to scale up bigger robots then obviously waterproofing the electronics. The main thing is the weight, buoyancy and the balance distribution: you have to get the motors in the right place, otherwise you'll tilt; if you're too buoyant then you won't be able to sink; if you're too heavy then you won't be able to surface with the treasure chest. It's a complex balancing act. It's trial and error initially, but there is more of a science behind it, where you can think 'why can't I get under the fishing net? Well, it's because I'm too light, so I need to add more bricks, or I need to... And why can't I get back up, 'cos I'm too heavy, so I need to take bricks off or I need to not take all the treasure chests,' and so on."
The kits themselves are designed to be extremely low cost, combining off-the-shelf components and Lego bricks with a custom-designed control board and coming in at £25 from Dark Water's online shop including everything you need except solder and a body of water. "We put the designs online, so if you know a PCB manufacturer you can go and get it made yourself or you can buy the controllers from us, you can buy the kits from us." Asked why he would give away the secret sauce of his project, Barry laughs. "Simple thing to do! It's easier to put it out there. If people want to order it from us then they can order it from us, if they want to go somewhere else and get it then go somewhere else and get it. I mean, we're not looking to make a fortune out of it, it's a guerilla attempt to get people to do underwater robotics instead of surface robotics."
The Liverpool MakeFest marks the first time Barry and his team have run the workshop. "This is our trial, so to speak. Our aim is to get them into schools, maybe even colleges and universities, you never know. We've run trials for about two months, I think. The main control board is on its second iteration, this now is the simplest Lego set we've got - we had a lot more advanced stuff, we had a play at Maker Faire UK with boats and bits and pieces, but this is the first time we've actually got an easy kit which we know will work as soon as it's put together."
More information on the Dark Water Foundation and its Lego-based remote operated submersible vehicles can be found on the official website at darkwater.io, or via Twitter on @darkwaterhq. The company has also published an Instructable describing the build process, including a bill of materials.