Category Archives: Robots

May Day: Robots are coming for your job.

Yes, the title is sensational, but I really needed to get your attention.

Today is May 1st, known by many as “May Day”. With a long history, this day is known as a spring celebration, full of life and rebirth. Furthermore, it is also known as “International Workers’ Day” in recognition of the Haymarket Massacre in Chicago, where workers rioted for us to enjoy our now standard 8-hour workdays. Even though working conditions are not great for many around the world, collectively, most of us are better off than we would have been in the 1800s. And of course, it also evokes “mayday”, the international distress signal.

So I can think of no better day to discuss your job with you. Yes, you. Especially if you are a friend of mine, and especially if you work in manufacturing, service industry, transportation, clerical, middle management, or many other jobs I’m not thinking of right now, quite honestly. Right now, even the lowest of income groups in the US (and others, I’m sure) enjoy luxuries that their counterparts 100 years ago would have never dreamed of. And most of it is due to advances in technology.

Typing Robot
The age of this image should show you how long this research has been going on.

Make no mistake. There’s a good chance automation will replace your current job within the next 20 years. Even less for some of you. Think about that for a moment and plan it out. If you’re less than 20 years away from retirement, this is something you will have to deal with.

We are at both an exciting and terrifying time in history right now, from a technological perspective. We have so many pieces of the puzzle available to us. Right now, I have everything I would need to create a tabletop manufacturing-style robotic arm that could automate certain tasks. And I could do it with equipment that cost less than $500 (3d printer, soldering equipment, tools), and supplies costing less than $200 (plastic filament, hardware, motors, electronics). If I can do all of this for that cost, imagine what companies with much larger resources are planning right now. And they will. Not because they hate workers, but humans are messy and unreliable compared to software and automated systems. Sure, they’re motivated by money, and many even by greed, but it’s not malice. Nevertheless, make no mistake, it will happen anyway. Just think of all this talk of automated cars and the boons for human safety, but also the loss of many driving and transport-related jobs. Instead of being angry Luddites about it, let’s be productive.

Okay, now that I’ve convinced you (I hope), what can we do about it?

  1. Legislate. Bill Gates is proposing that we tax robots that replace human jobs, and I agree. Our economy is not prepared for this leap just yet. A tax would help pad the blow both in helping employ more people with new work, and it would slow the process of automating everything at once, so we have a chance to work things out.

  2. Prepare yourself and your families. If you think your job could be easily automated, this is imminent. You can no longer ignore this. Learn skills that are not easily automated now so you’ve got something to move to later on. Think about starting a business. Make options for yourself.

  3. Prepare your children. Make sure they’re developing skills that cannot be easily automated so they will have decent job prospects when they become adults.

  4. Talk to others. I don’t hear anyone talking about this except for a select few. However, this is something that will affect a lot of lives. Make sure those around you aren’t caught unaware.

Thanks for sticking with me through this post. I’m sure it seems incredulous or difficult to take, but I’m glad you’re thinking about it.

Additional reading:

Robots to replace 5 million jobs by 2020

AI and robots threaten to unleash mass unemployment, scientists warn

Elon Musk: “within 10 years it will be “unusual” for anything other than driverless cars to be manufactured”

Bill Gates and Elon Musk just warned us about the one thing politicians are too scared to talk about

Modding my SYMA X55W quadcopter

For Christmas, a friend of mine bought a SYMA X55W quadcopter for me. It’s a pretty low-cost quadcopter that has fairly good performance and durability.

However, it wasn’t long after I had started flying, that I had to re-adjust the trims throughout the flight. I had a suspicion as to what was going on. The battery pack was shifting around inside the quadcopter while it was flying, causing the center of gravity to shift around as well!

Look at all that space in there!
Look at all that space in there!

So, I decided to fix it using my new 3d printer!

First, I needed to get access to the battery area to take some measurements. That means taking this thing apart basically completely. You can do this basically with just a very small phillips screwdriver. And maybe a plastic spudger.

Inside the SYMA quadcopter

After I got the thing apart, I measured the battery area in the frame, and I measured a battery. Then I designed this piece to fit into the frame securely under the control board support.

The translucent part is what I created
The translucent part is what I created

I printed it in white PLA and installed it.

This is how the part is printed.
This is how the part is printed.

The battery is much more secure now!

Battery Snuggie installed under control board support
Battery Snuggie installed under control board support

I posted the design for this on Thingiverse, so you can follow along if you have the same model or a compatible model of quadcopter.

Note: If you follow this, make sure you are comfortable with fully taking apart your new toy and are confident you can put it back together successfully! Also, here’s a manual with an “exploded” view of the parts.

It’s not too difficult, but let me lay out the order of how to do it:

  1. Remove propellers (There are screws in the center of each. Remember where they went as order matters!)
  2. Remove gear guards underneath (held on by a single screw each)
  3. Remove pairs of screws on each arm.
  4. Remove landing gear (single screw on each)
  5. Remove screws under landing gear (single screw under each leg)
  6. Carefully pry apart top from bottom halves.
  7. Remove screws from control board (3 screws, one is a peg)
  8. Remove control board support.
  9. Slide in 3d printed “battery snuggie” and line it up over the screw columns.
  10. Loosely screw down control board support to frame.
  11. Screw down control board to support.
  12. Tighten control board support on frame.
  13. Re-assemble quadcopter in reverse order from steps 1-6 above.


FIRST Robotics Season 2015

Lots has happened since the last post at the beginning of the build season. The team has completed a robot, completed a practice robot, went to regional competition and learned quite a lot. I’ve learned quite a lot, too.

[Want to see the team’s progress? We have video updates here on YouTube.]

Our team, System Meltdown (FRC 2357), did great at competition this year.  They really came together as a team at the end.  We ended up moving on to the playoffs and making it to the quarterfinals.  We almost made it to the semifinals as we tied for points.  The best part was that our team and our robot performed very well in the playoffs especially.  It was the other teams who had trouble this time.

Aside from the expected learned bits of taking more time and commitment than expected, navigating the politics of the local school system, and keeping teenagers on task, there have been some unexpected lessons:

  1. Parental support makes a huge difference.

This one is a little obvious if you think about it, but other than bringing kids and picking them up, our team parents not only bring food to each of our shop sessions, but one of them organizes the whole effort of doing so.  They show up in large numbers to any outing we have, help mentor the team, and donate everything from cleaning supplies to workbenches.  Amazing.

  1. There’s a wide spread of commitment between students.

Some students are very committed and productive, but others are only casually there.  I figured this would be the case, but there really is a very stark difference.  However, there were a few cases of students who just needed some direction and latched on as soon as we found it for them.  In many cases, the age of the student matters little.  We have some very committed freshman, and some marginally committed seniors.

  1. This would use almost every facet of my engineering knowledge.

I naively thought that the technical leads from previous years would have this down by now.  But they all still need help somewhat to fairly frequently.  Within a single shop day, I would find myself helping with software, explaining the actions of mechanisms, demonstrating how to solder wires, how to work a spreadsheet, and checking for essay grammar.

  1. There are teams out there who work with much less than we have.

I knew we had it pretty good with the financial support we get from our school district.  However, we really don’t have enough space for all 35+ students trying to make a shop, computer lab, etc. out of a standard classroom.  But at a scrimmage this year, I spoke to a mentor who said their team stores their robot and equipment in the science classroom closet, and getting zero support from the school district.  Talk about making the best of your situation!

  1. Goals are important!

Last but certainly not least.  It may seem obvious, but I believe this point cannot be overstated.  Our team had 3 goals this year.  We achieved two, and almost the third.  However, the overall success we realized was definitely a result of working toward those goals.

And that’s it for this competition season.  But it doesn’t stop here.  I will continue to keep meetings going in the off-season and we will continue to work on projects for fundraising, community outreach, team training, and other technical activities.

Catch ya later!