Pre-competition update from the Kansas City Space Pirates

I just received this email from Brian Turner, captain of the Kansas City Space Pirates:

We have a date. The competition is set for the week of Nov 2nd. We are cutting it close in a race against the winter.

But in other news we went to Seattle to do some testing few weeks back and the helicopter system now has the bugs worked out and is ready for the competition.

We got a chance to get on the cable and test our climber. It did not go well. The way that it reminded me of our 2007 performance was spooky.

We had problems with our radio links to the climber. This was odd because we have tested that extensively to ranges well past 1000 meters. We were having problems at 100 meters. This caused me to drive the climber incorrectly and melt the wheels. The wheels then stuck together and caused the motor to burn up. I had spare wheels in the suitcase but not spare motors. In hindsight a spare motor would have been easy to take, but I had to pack quickly as Spaceward was only able to schedule the test a few days ahead of time. It’s that racing against the winter thing.

So in the past few weeks we have gone in depth learning about radio links and interference. I have talked to the other teams to make sure we are all on different channels. We have purchased and learned how to use the tools to identify and correct interference. There was even a backup radio link in our plans several months back but the system was doing so well that I was trying to avoid spending the money for it.

Looks like we may have to dust the cobwebs off of plan B on this one. We are also giving the wheels a thorough review and have found a few points to improve them and insure that they don’t suffer such a failure again.

The test showed us possible failure modes ahead of time so from that point of view it was a success. We will have finished addressing those failure modes before the competition. Another round of testing would sure be nice, but there is not time or money.

This just in! We found a defective wire on the test climber that caused the bulk of our radio problems. It has no outward signs of damage but you can just touch it a watch the status light blink off and on.

This is exactly the smoking gun we were looking for.

We tested last weekend with an aircraft carrying the test climber we call Lovey. All systems were go at a range of a mile high. We can clearly pick out our radio signal on the new spectrum analyzer. We were able to track Lovey on the aircraft with our optics system. This is a much more difficult target than we are expecting for the competition and we really benefited from the practice.

Today we are working on wheels. We are struggling to get clean data from our tests but it is looking like we have a design with better durability, efficiency and traction. We built another treadmill for the climber to practice climbing on and found a higher tree. I think we now have the data that we missed out on getting in the helicopter tests back in June, July and just recently in the Seattle tests.

These past few months remind me of the movie Rocky and others like it where after a defeat (The helicopter test failure) you go back to the gym and work out real hard to get back in winning shape. I am envious of how easy they make that look in the movies and also reminded that winning shape is something that has to be maintained, not just achieved.

Brian Turner
KC Space Pirates

The ‘defective wire’ thingy is scary – so much work, so much preparation, so much money, so much testing, all can be undone by this one little thing.  I’m very glad they found this before the competition and I’m sure some new testing regimens have been developed because of this.

You can never guarantee success – all you can do is increase the odds in your favor.

Regarding “…cutting it close in a race against the winter…”, data from the Mojave weather station indicates that the average max temperature in Mojave in November is 65.7 degrees Farenheit, while the average min temperature is 39.1 degreees.  Average rainfall for the month is .43 inches.  The ‘heavy rains’ (1 inch plus per month) don’t kick in until January – February.  Of course these are averages and our mileage this year may vary, but the odds are in our favor.  And, it’s going to be MUCH more pleasant holding this competition in November than it would have been in August.

Just 12 more days!