Member Build - CNC

A few months ago, Jordan and I decided to build a chalk drawing robot. Our plan was to enter the Amazement Square 2016 Chalk Festival, draw an exact replica of the Mona Lisa, and walk away with the gold. We built Chalkbot over the course of three nights. Jordan focused on the electronics, wiring the stepper motors and programming the Arduino with a gcode interpreter, while I built the gantry and other mechanical aspects. Justin was there to lend some help in both realms.

3D Printed CNC

We were pleased with Chalkbot's artistic talent . It wasn't drawing the Mona Lisa, but it made a pretty cool looking wolf. So full of confidence, thinking about how we would spend our winnings, we took Chalkbot to the Festival and unleashed his talent. In less than five minutes, it was clear that Chalkbot was the worst artist in sight. Embarrassingly, we had only ever tested him inside, on a smooth surface. So when it came time to draw on rough, uneven asphalt in the 95 degree summer heat, we'll just say that many things went wrong.

Not to be deterred, we vowed to rebuild Chalkbot, and this past Saturday began our endeavor to do so. We held our first member build, which involved nine Vector Space members, fueled by caffeine and bagels, working diligently on a CNC build from Thingiverse . They divided the work: cutting conduit, assembling various parts, building circuitry and programming the motor controller. The plan was to work on it for three hours, but they couldn't tear themselves away. At the end of the day, they had built the workings of a significantly improved CNC.

And while the members of Vector Space plan to use it as a CNC router, using it to make Christmas trees, airplanes, signs, 3D puzzles, and all sorts of other bizarre ideas, Jordan and I intend to attach a piece of chalk to it and defeat all humans at Chalk Fest 2017.

Nitro RC - Week 1

Meet Trey, Terrell, and Christian (from left to right) of Team Turbo. They had last pick of the four nitro cars, which came with a few challenges. It was clear at the start that the front wheel assembly was completely broken and most of the screws stripped. It wasn't until the teardown began that they got a better feel for how much work needed to be done. It turns out that screw extraction is an art that we've yet to master. But with enough broken drill bits, they managed to get the job done.

Team Turbo

Given that the first race was only a week away, Team Turbo knew they wouldn't be able to get new parts in time. So they made due with what they had. The broken bulkhead received a generous helping of epoxy, the stripped screws were replaced, and the transmission ignored. The skid plate that protects the underside of many important components was in equally rough condition. Once they had the engine out, and the suspension off, they could more clearly see the transmission, which unfortunately revealed that they didn't have drive shafts to the front wheels, meaning they were the only team without four wheel drive.

Team Turbo

Fortunately, our friends at AMG know that these are minor issues that can be fixed, so they were happy to sponsor Team Turbo. Which means that the drive shafts, front differential, and replacement skid plates are on the way.

Team Turbo was the first team to reassemble their car, which gave them some time to practice before the first race. Wish them luck!

Check out the current standings to see how they did.

Rockets & Race Cars

This fall we have two high powered and high energy projects going on at Vector Space. As is tradition, we're building and launching something into the air. And- new this time around- we are [hopefully] keeping our Nitro RC Cars on the ground.


We have nine rocketeers in grades 7-12 participating in the Team America Rocketry Challenge (TARC), a national rocketry competition. Students are split into two teams, and each team is designing and building a rocket using OpenRocket software and 3D printed, hand-made and ordered parts. Teams will each launch 25-40 times, attempting to get as close as possible to the target altitude (775 feet) and time constraints (42 seconds) put forth by the competition, all while safely launching and delivering a raw hen egg back to the ground.

Race Cars

Four teams of two have spent the first week of this project completely dismantling their cars. Broken parts will be fixed or replaced, all parts will be cleaned and then reassembly will commence. Each week of the eight week project teams will pit their cars against the others in a race. Races will vary each week: cars will be adjusted to adapt from a street course to off-road conditions, with some tug-of-war and obstacles thrown in the mix as well. With each change in course, students will learn more about how their cars work as they make adjustments to how they drive in order to beat the competition.

Our Time in Space

Our goal was to take a picture of the Earth. We thought about simply enjoying existing images easily found online, but similar to the satisfaction gained from changing your own brake pads, we decided it would be more enjoyable to take the pictures ourselves. So with three engineers at the lead, we recruited two teams of high schoolers for our very own mini-space race. Each team had seven students from a variety of backgrounds and local schools, and each was led by one of our engineers.

Our only guideline was that we’d use weather balloons to carry the cameras. Aside from this, the approach was open for the students to decide, and it shows, as both teams adopted wildly different strategies. Dave’s team focused on simplicity and function, while Paul’s team sought innovation and adventure. And while both have incredible stories to share after a combined total of 20 weeks of work, this story is but a snippet of Paul’s team: No Strings Attached.

Paul and his team wanted good pictures, which meant they would need to reach high altitudes. This can be done by buying large balloons and likewise large quantities of lifting gas, but as with most things, it can also be done more efficiently, with a little bit of science and engineering. For any given balloon, there’s an optimum amount of helium to fill it with. Too much and the balloon will expand rapidly, bursting at a low altitude. Too little and the balloon won’t have the lift to reach its burst altitude, sending it on a journey around the world, unlikely to ever be found. The students had to understand this, and they had to make their calculations accordingly. So we spent time illuminating this concept through experiment, using a vacuum chamber to demonstrate the physics (and test our hardware). They tested their altimeter’s accuracy in the chamber and added dry ice to simulate the negative 50 degree temperatures that would potentially freeze their electronics. They used it to burst balloons, confirming their predictions. They enjoyed their vacuum chamber so much that they decided to build a custom one, first from wood, then from steel after the wooden frame collapsed. But testing was only a small part of their efforts. Much of their time was spend building circuits, writing code, designing and building their capsule and its various components.


Team No Strings Attached missed their launch date, by a lot. In fact, they missed the launch window to even be considered in the official Global Space Balloon competition. Regardless, after 10 weeks, they were ready to launch. The plan was to meet Sunday morning and launch at 8am, which would put the capsule near Farmville around 11am according to their predictions.

So they met, and the team began assembling their capsule. The first test of the flight controller made clear that not everything was actually ready. For some reason, the relays were opening when expected to close. Apparently the wrong version of the code was uploaded to the board. After sorting through a vast collection of different Arduino sketches, the right one was finally found. The rest of the parts were collected and they made their way to the launch site close to 9am, after which things only got worse.


The staging area was set; they began filling the balloon with 125 cubic feet of helium, while others started assembling the capsule. One of the cameras wasn’t working, most likely a dead battery, and another camera was missing an SD card, so they salvaged the one in the dead camera. Camera down, they installed the main flight unit into the capsule and turned on the GPS trackers to find that the transmitter was not working. They rebooted it a few times and finally took an auxiliary SD card from it that seemed to be causing problems. They’d have to live without the altitude data.

Once everything was finally in place, it was time to connect the main battery. The loud explosion that followed came as a surprise to the spectators who had formed an hour earlier, but was somewhat expected by the team. They admirably designed a ballistic parachute that worked well in testing, but they had this problem before when the Arduino starts up and sends a spurious signal to ignite the black powder. The way around it was to power the Arduino first, let it boot, then plug in the ballistic charge, but they got it backwards. Knowing that the chute wasn’t going to release on its own, they moved it at the last minute and hung it outside the capsule. At this point, stress was high and it was time to let the capsule on its journey, regardless of the problems faced so far. The countdown began. The inflated balloon floated 20 feet above us, tethered to the capsule by a string. And when the countdown reached 4, that string broke, and off went the balloon with all of its helium, while the team stood there, dejected, capsule still in hand.

They met back at Vector Space, stood around a table, and shared their thoughts. It was no surprise that everyone was disappointed, but what was unexpected was the way the students handled it. Instead of sulking and parting ways, they made a plan. They would meet tomorrow night, then again on Wednesday, and the following week to fix what went wrong. It was clear they were serious this time, and the determination persisted through the next two weeks, preparing them for a second launch which proved significantly more successful.


Their capsule ended up reaching 116,000 feet before returning back to Earth and landing in Lexington. Though they succeeded in the end, No Strings Attached experienced a phrase often heard at Vector Space: failure IS an option. We hope they won’t forget it.


Thank you to Cognizant's Making the Future program for sponsoring this project.


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