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The Foxee Animatronic Robot Project Blog

Category: Announcements

Putting Some "Extra" Effort into Amateur Radio

Posted by: The Mad Scientist

It has been a very long time since I have posted an entry here to my Foxee Animatronic Robot Project Blog, and I very much apologize for that. However, please rest assured that I have not given up on eventually building an animatronic version of my beloved Foxee character, nor have I given up on my efforts of using this blog to detail my experiences of doing so. If any of you have been following what I have been up to on my main Project Destiny Studios™ website, you would know that I have been involved with selling my artwork in well over a dozen furry convention art shows and that I have gotten a lot of artwork published in print since the last time that I posted here. It takes a lot of time and money to get those kinds of things accomplished, and since I am not exactly made of either time nor money I had to spend a lot less of both with building my robot Foxee. With that said my Foxee Animatronic Robot Project is still very much alive and well, and I will be writing some entries detailing all of the progress that I have made with building her over the past couple years in future entries of this blog.

With that said, I also have some very happy news to report! Those of you who know me know that I have no formal electrical engineering training, and that all of my electrical engineering skills were picked up through my 13-years as a licensed U.S. amateur radio operator. The amateur radio hobby is a great way to pick up some serious hands-on experience with electronics, and many of the ham radio operators that I have met over the years have never ceased to amaze me with their incredible technical prowess and skill.

Back in September of 2005 on this blog I happily announced that I had upgraded my amateur radio license from a Technician Plus Class license to a General Class license. I am now extremely happy to report that after two months of hard studying I have passed the Element 4 written exam, and that means that I have now earned the highest class of license in the Amateur Service-- the Amateur Extra class! As a result, I am now been granted all of the privileges that a amateur radio operator in the United States can have, and for the next week or so when I talk on the air I get to identify myself as "KB9MFT/AE" (pronounced over the air as "KB9MFT Tempory AE") to indicate that I have earned my new license.

I have wanted to become an Amateur Extra ever since I earned my General Class license in 2005, and after several times of starting to study for the exam but losing interest and never taking it I have finally pushed myself to go all the way and take the exam. As far as what gave me the motivation to finally go and do it this time, in a way it was actually a financial one. To explain what I mean, the Volunteer Examiner Coordinator Question Pool Committee changes the question pools for all of the amateur radio license exams every few years to keep the questions up-to-date and relevant to the hobby. The current question pool for the Amateur Extra Class exam went into effect back in 2002 and was going to be replaced with a new question pool on July 31st of this year. I had already spent more than $50 buying both the Gordon West and ARRL preparation study books for the exam a couple years ago when I first tried my hand at studying for it, and I didn't want to have to go out and re-purchase those study books in two months when they updated the question pools with the brand new questions. So in order to save myself from spending $50 to re-buy the study books I finally put the axe to the grinder and forced myself to learn all of the equations and electrical engineering knowledge that I needed to finally take and pass the test! Isn't it amazing what the fear of having to shell out a few extra greenbacks can cause you to accomplish?

When I took the exam last Friday, I was actually very nervous that I would just barely not pass it. While I had studied much much harder for the Element 4 exam than I had for any other amateur radio exam that I had ever taken, some of the material was so difficult that I was still worried that I wouldn't pass it on my first shot. To give you an example of some of the questions that were on the exam, here are a few of the questions that I had to spend extra time studying:

  • E2E07: What is the typical bandwidth of a properly modulated MFSK16 signal?
  • E5C11: In polar coordinates, what is the impedance of a network comprised of a 100-picofarad capacitor in parallel with a 4,000-ohm resistor at 500kHz?
  • E7D01: What are three major oscillator circuits often used in Amateur Radio equipment?

For those of you who are interested, the answers to those questions are:

  • E2E07: 316 Hz
  • E5C11: 2490 ohms, /-51.5 degrees
  • E7D01: Colpitts, Hartley, and Pierce

Now I am sure that somewhere out there some Amateur Extra Class ham will read those questions that I listed above and say out loud to himself, "Those simple questions gave this guy trouble? Ha! I can do those kinds of questions in my sleep!" Well, good for you. I at least thought that questions like that were really tough when I had my first go at them in my study book, and I had to go through each of those questions more than once before I finally got them down cold. And I am sure that I am not the only ham radio operator who had to study a little bit harder for this exam than the previous exams-- as of currently there are only around 110,000 Amateur Extra class operators in the United States, which is less than 1 in every 5 U.S. Ham Radio Operators. If the test was easy I am sure that the ratio of Amateur Extras license holders would be much higher, especially since the Amateur Extra license exam no longer has a 20-wpm Morse Code test as part of it. So I am very proud that I finally passed this exam and earned the top license, and I am especially proud that I once again did it on my very first try taking the test, which has been the case for every amateur radio license examination I have ever taken since I got my original Tech-Plus license back in junior high school.

As much as I wish that I could say that you would be hearing me soon on the exclusive portions of the 80, 40, 20, and 15-meter bands that are reserved only for Amateur Extra Class operators, the unfortunate truth is that I don't currently own any radio equipment that can operate on anything below the 10-meter ham band. Hopefully that will one day change, and I will finally be able to use all of the additional radio privileges that have been awarded to me. While I do not operate on any of the ham bands very often these days, a few places where you may still actually find me on the air are on the 2-meter band talk-in frequencies of many local hamfests, on the local SKYWARN Severe Weather Net on the DuPage Amateur Radio Club W9DUP repeater at 145.430 MHz (I renewed my Advanced-Level SKYWARN Severe Weather Spotter Certification earlier this year), on the Ham Radio talk-in frequency at the Midwest Furfest furry convention each November, or once every blue moon or so on the Night Patrol Net on the Argonne Amateur Radio Club W9ANL repeater at 145.190 MHz. These days I am only on the air about a dozen or so times a year, mainly on the 2-meter band, but hopefully that will one day change if I am ever able to get better equipment and more free time.

Believe it or not, while I originally became a ham radio operator back in the mid-1990's to talk on the air, it's actually not the "talking" part of the hobby that drives my interest in it today. As I mentioned above I have received most of my self-taught electrical engineering skills through the amateur radio hobby, and it is my interest in continuing to improve those skills that led me to want to upgrade my license. The ham radio hobby is one of the few hobbies out there that actually encourages you to design, build, and experiment with your own equipment, and there is a large community of technically experienced hams that are more than willing to help you learn the skills needed to complete your projects. As a result, many great American innovators were involved at some point in their lives with amateur radio, including the the famous aviation pioneer and billionaire Howard R. Hughes, Jr., the current NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, co-founder of Apple Computer Steve Wozniac, former CEO of Apple Computer John Scully, founder of Atari Nolan Bushnell, co-founder of Hewlitt-Packard David Packard, co-inventor of the Hayes Smartmodem and co-founder of Hayes Microcomputer Products Dale Heatherington, the famous phone phreaker John Draper, the famous computer hacker Kevin Mitnick, and even many Astronauts and Cosmonauts! As an aspiring animatronic robot designer and builder ham radio is a great hobby to be in, and it has been absolutely crucial in helping me understand how robots can be controlled through radio control at the circuit board level.

While I may now have the top radio license in the U.S. Amateur Service, that doesn't mean that my studying for radio license exams has come to an end. For the past couple years I have been holding onto a study book for a commercial FCC radio license known as the General Radiotelephone Operator License with Ship RADAR Endorsement (a.k.a. the "GROL"), and I plan to eventually earn that license as well. That license would officially certify me as being qualified to operate and repair certain marine and aviation radio equipment, repair and operate ship RADAR systems, and operate commercial international broadcast stations. While I don't necessarily feel driven to perform any of those job duties as a career, I would still like to really have the GROL license on my resume to show to employers that I have some proficiency in electrical engineering. The GROL license exam's written elements 1, 3, and 8 have a combined total of 150 questions in it as opposed the the Amateur Extra exam's 50, so it is a much harder exam, but I feel confident that I can eventually pass it.

I am always happy to meet with other hams at ham radio related events and discuss the wonderful hobby that we share. I plan to be at the Princeton Hamfest, Computer, and Hobby Show on June 1st, the Six Meter Club of Chicago Hamfest on June 8th, the DucKon Science Fiction Convention on June 13-15, possibly the Fox Radio Relay League Hamfest on July 13th, and possibly the Bolingbrook Amateur Radio Society Hamfest on August 3rd. We will see if I still have enough money left to buy yet more odd electronic equipment for my personal mad scientist menagerie by the time those last two hamfests come around this year-- as friends who know me already know (and to my parents' great dismay), I have the tendency to drag home some of the weirdest pieces of large electronic crap from those places! In any case, hopefully I will hit the ham bands again soon, and until then I wish you all a hearty "73!"

I Will Be Speaking On Three Midwest Furfest Panels!

Posted by: The Mad Scientist

I will be a panelist speaking on three fursuit construction panels at the Midwest Furfest Furry Convention! The convention takes at the Hyatt Regency Woodfield Hotel in Schaumburg, Illinois, from November 18-20. If you are attending the convention, you can see me speak on the following panels at the following rooms and times:

Fursuit Construction MEGA-Panel 1
Saturday, November 19th, Arlington Heights Room, 10:00AM - 12:00PM

Fursuits, those wild and zany animated fuzzy critters no furry can resist! So how do they come to life, and what does it REALLY take to make one? Here you can learn, from some of the best builders in the fandom, about designing, constructing, and caring for fursuits. Whether it's your first suit or your tenth, you're sure to learn some valuable tips and techniques! This first session of two MEGA-panels will cover basic fursuit construction and design.

Basic Fursuit Head Construction
Sunday, November 20th, Schaumburg Room, 9:00AM - 10:00AM

Ok, so you've almost built that fantastic fursuit, but something just doesn't seem right! Join Ocicat as he discusses basic fursuit head construction and materials that will help you top off that perfect suit, and bring your critter to life!

Fursuit Construction MEGA-Panel 2
Sunday, November 20th, Schaumburg Room, 10:00AM - 12:00PM

As if we haven't had enough fun, already! Stop on by for more furry construction mayhem as fursuit builders discuss advanced fursuit building techniques, materials, special effects, and basic care and maintenance.

(Midwest Furfest panel descriptions were taken from the Midwest Furfest website.)

To explain how I became a panelist on these panels, some time ago I mentioned my Foxee Animatronics Project and my experience with servo motors and electronics to the Programming Director for the Midwest Furfest furry convention. I knew that the convention often had an animatronics for fursuits panel each year, and I offered to help speak on the panel if I was needed. For those of you that are unfamiliar with the furry fandom, a "fursuit" is a sports mascot-style animal costume with a full body suit and an animal head that you put on over your own. Just like how Star Trek fans dress up like Klingons and Fantasy Fans will dress up like a mage, furry fans like to dress up as "furries," which are upright walking animals with human personalities like Bugs Bunny or the characters from the Walt Disney animated feature film "Robin Hood." Dressing up into character is just a fun way to "role play" as something that you always wished you could be.

Getting back to the story, while I was told by the Midwest Furfest Programming Director that I wasn't needed to speak on the animatronics panel, the programming director did ask me to speak on three other fursuit construction panels at the convention to answer any electronics questions that the audience may have. These panels include the two fursuit construction mega panels, and the Basic Fursuit Head Construction panel. At first I was a little intimidated by the fact that I was going to be on a fursuit head construction panel considering that I have yet to construct any fursuit heads myself. I expressed my concerns to the Programming Director, but she reassured me and told me that I was placed on the panel to field any electronics or animatronics questions that the audience would come up with and to back up the other panelists if I had something to add to what they were talking about.

With that concern out of the way, now all I have to figure out is how I am going to get up at 9:00AM on Sunday morning-- Considering the fact that this Mad Scientist is nocturnal and plans to be dancing the night away with all of the cute ladyfurs during the Saturday night dance, it is going to take at least three-quarters of the caffeine in the northern hemisphere injected straight into my heart to get me up by then! A Mad Scientist's work is never done! Despite the fact that I will probably be resembling one of my undead zombie experiments when I am at these panels that early in the morning, it should still be a lot of fun! And while I don't know the possibility of this yet, I might just be able to bring in an oscilloscope and hook up some servo motor controller boards to it to give a demonstration about how servo motors work. We'll just have to wait and see!

I've Been Promoted to General!

Posted by: The Mad Scientist

A General Class FCC Amateur Radio License that is! Tonight I took my Element 3 written exam for the license at the DuPage Amateur Radio Club volunteer examination meeting, and I was able to pass the exam on my first try despite the fact that I had only covered about two-thirds of the study material in my Gordon West General Class examination preparation book! I held a Technician Plus class amateur radio license before, which gave me transmitting privileges on many VHF, UHF, and microwave radio frequency bands and some low-power transmitting privileges on some tiny portions of the shortwave radio bands, but now with my new General Class license I can transmit on the vast majority of the shortwave bands at a peak envelope power of 1500 Watts! That is more than enough power to talk to other amateur radio operators across the globe, and even bounce radio signals off the moon and back to earth! Now if I could only afford an HF radio transceiver that could take advantage of my new license privileges.... In any case, for the next week over the air instead of identifying myself as just my normal radio call sign "KB9MFT," I can identify myself as "KB9MFT Temporary AG," which will let others know that I recently upgraded my license!

While I am not a very active amateur radio operator these days because I am so busy working on my artwork, animation, animatronics, and electronics, if you are interested in hearing me on the air I occasionally pop onto "The Night Patrol Net" run by the Argonne Amateur Radio Club every night at 10:30PM. The Night Patrol Net is run on the W9ANL Repeater Station, which is located on the grounds of Argonne National Laboratory just north of Lemont, IL with a output frequency of 145.19 MHz and a input frequency of 144.59 MHz.

Foxee™ Animatronic Character 2005 Midwest Furfest Variety Show Act Proposal

Posted by: The Mad Scientist

Overview

I have a very ambitious act that I would like to try and perform for the 2005 Midwest Furfest Variety Show. In a nutshell, the act would involve Foxee™, an animatronic robot female arctic blue fox that I am currently constructing, either moving and singing by herself or talking and singing with a human actor on stage for about three to four minutes. The Foxee™ robot when completed will utilize technology similar to that of Kittfoxx's "Georgia Belle" animatronic fursuit that performed in two skits during the 2004 Midwest Furfest Variety Show with the exception that Foxee will be a stand-alone animatronic robot with no human operator instead of an animatronic fursuit.

Foxee's Design and Projected Capabilities

The Foxee animatronic robot is currently only in the design phase. However, most of the hardware and electronics that are going to be used with the robot has already been determined, and based on that I can give you an overview of what her design and capabilities will be. The design for the Foxee animatronic robot will be based off of my Foxee the arctic blue fox animated cartoon character, who has been the flagship character for my sole-proprietorship animation studio for the last two-and-a-half years. Because the robot will be based off of a cartoon fox instead of a real one, it will have a cartoony appearance and will be larger than a real fox.

The Foxee robot will permanently sit upright and be about 27-inches tall. The robot's primary frame will be constructed out of grade A-A plywood and wood dowels, and this frame will provide the support structure, internal compartments, the basic shape of the robot, and something to anchor the servo motors against. On top of the wood frame will be a sculpted wire frame made of low-gauge aluminum armature wire or steel wire. This wire frame will give Foxee her feminine vixen shape and provide the hinges for her mouth and access panels. On top of the wire frame will be a metal or plastic mesh, which will provide something to hot glue her outer fur to. This is the solution I have found to be best based on my robotics and costuming research, however I have little to no experience with using any of these materials, so if any experienced fursuiters or robot designers have any suggestions for better frame and super-structure construction methods and materials, I am open to input.

Foxee, like Kittfoxx's Georgia Belle, will run pre-recorded programs off of a specially formatted audio compact disc using a Sony portable CD player, a Buffington Effects CD2Serial board, and the Servo Animator 1.2.0 software. For a servo motor controller board I have decided to go with the Lynxmotion SSC-32, which is MiniSSC II compatible, can control up to 32 servos, and has open source firmware. A combination of standard and mini-sized Hitec and Futaba servos will be used for the robot’s movement. I plan to use at least 9 servo motors in Foxee, and more will be included if I have the money and the time to install them. The projected servo layout will be as follows:

  • 2 standard servos to control the vertical and horizontal motion of Foxee's neck via a Lynx B pan and tilt kit
  • 1 or 2 micro servos to control the blinking of Foxee's eyes
  • 2 micro servos to control the horizontal and vertical direction of Foxee’s eyes
  • 1 micro servo to control Foxee's mouth
  • 1 micro servo to control Foxee's eye brows
  • 1 standard servo to allow Foxee to wag the tip of her tail up and down

My current design for Foxee calls for her front legs to be static and permanently positioned in front of her as she sits. However, if I have the time, money, and required skill, I would love to attempt adding 4 mini servos and a pan and tilt kit to each front leg so that she could move and manipulate her front legs and paws to use for arm and hand gestures. That would make her seem much more life like, dynamic, and entertaining.

Proposed Acts

My original act idea was to have my animatronic Foxee character sing a duet with KittFoxx's Georgia Belle animatronic suit. The song I have chosen for the duet is a Lee Ann Womack and Alecia Elliott duet country western song called "One Dream," which would be perfect for Georgia Belle because her character is supposed to be a country western singer! The song deals with two girls singing about their competition over a guy, and that rivalry can be acted out between the two characters while they are singing on stage. The song is only three minutes and twenty-one seconds long, which could hopefully be short enough to eliminate the possibility of the skit becoming repetitive or boring. I have not yet proposed this idea to KittFoxx because the e-mail address I have for him bounces back my messages to me, and because my robot is not far enough along in development for me to start making plans and commitments with other people. I need to see if I can actually build this robot in time for the Variety Show first! And if worse comes to worse, I can always try to do this particular act at the 2006 variety show. I hope to have two robot foxes built by then, which would allow me to supply my own duet without having to draft Kittfoxx and Georgia Belle into my act.

If Foxee has to go out on her own without the support of another animatronic character or puppet, I could either have her sing a short song on her own or I can write a script where she interacts directly with me with some kind of short funny conversation. I have been a professional comic strip cartoonist for the last three years, so I am used to writing sharp and funny dialog. I am currently still working on coming up with ideas for such an interactive skit, however if you have any suggestions feel free to volunteer them.

Foxee's Current Development Status

As of the time of this writing, only design work on Foxee has been done and no actual construction of her frame or electronics has been started. I am still in a phase of researching robot design methods and learning how to use the tools and materials needed for construction. To effectively learn how to use a new tool or material, I complete a small practice project using that tool or material. Currently, I have used how to use electronic tools such as a soldering iron, chip puller, chip inserter, multi-meter, and logic probe by building three 555-timer IC based servo controller boards and a working replica of a 1975 Apple I microcomputer. These projects also taught me the purpose of basic electronic components, bread boarding, and how servo motors work and can be controlled.

My next scheduled project is to build an ASCII keyboard and a custom wood case for the Apple I (just like Apple I owners had to do in the 1970's) to teach me how to use a circular table saw and a jig saw, both tools that I will have to master to be able to construct Foxee's complex wood frame. Yet another project will be to create a small stuffed animal replica of Foxee to teach me how to use an electric sewing machine and to design and cut patterns in fur to cover the exterior of my robot. While these mini-projects are time consuming and somewhat sidetracking, the fact is that I will be spending well over $1000 in parts and tools to build this robot, so I would rather take the time to learn how to use all of the tools and materials correctly than risk making a very costly mistake on the robot itself.

Current Obstacles

  • A am currently having trouble locating a reasonably priced supply of General Instruments AY-5-2376 ASCII Keyboard Controller IC's. The AY-5-2376 is a special DIP IC that was manufactured in the 1980's to control ASCII keyboards. At least 2 of these chips are required for my Apple I case project. While I have found multiple suppliers of this out-of-production chip, they either want a $100 minimum order, which is ludicrous, or they will not return my phone calls or e-mails at all.
  • I am having trouble finding an IBM PC-compatible laptop that is within my tight budget that I can use for controlling my Foxee robot and for giving on-site demonstrations of my Foxee Microsoft Agent character. The laptop needs to fit the following minimum requirements:
    • Intel Pentium III running at 450mHz or faster
    • 128MB of RAM, any speed
    • Functioning color screen
    • Graphics card capable of 16-million colors and at least a 800 x 600 resolution
    • 5GB or greater hard drive
    • A DB9 or DB25 RS-232 serial port
    • An external monitor VGA port
    • A PS-2 port for mouses or keyboards
    • A headphone jack for external speakers
    • A microphone jack for microphone input

    Most laptops that are about 4 to 7 years old will probably fit those specifications. I am currently a recently graduated and unemployed university student who is playing the dangerous game of living without health insurance, so I currently unable to afford the price that laptops of this caliber for what they go for on eBay. I wish that I could utilize a less powerful machine, but the multimedia used by both the Foxee robot and Foxee animated Microsoft Agent character require some serious RAM and processing power behind them. If anyone has an old laptop that fits or comes close to these requirements that they would like to either donate to the cause or sell, feel free to e-mail me privately.

Potential Obstacles

  • The Possibility of Lack of Funds – Since I am currently unemployed, my Foxee robot is currently draining my savings account, which alone isn't nearly enough to complete the project. If I am able to find a well-paying job between now and November this should not be a problem, but the risk is there that I could run out of funds before the project is completed, which may render me unable to provide an act for the Midwest Furfest variety show.
  • The Possibility of Lack of Skill – Before I started this project, I had almost no prior knowledge of electronic soldering or electronic circuit design, and I still have no practical experience with sewing, hot gluing, making stuffed animal fabric patterns, wire sculpting, or woodworking. I am learning these things as I go along, and while I have confidence in my ability to learn new skills, there is always a possibility that I could always fall short of my needed abilities and not be able to learn a skill in a capacity that is high enough to complete my robot. All I can say is that I will try my best!
  • The Possibility of a Poor Robot Design – While I have currently bought several books telling how to build digital and analog circuits, robot chassis, and robot power trains, I am still doing a lot of educated guessing while I am designing Foxee's frame and determining where to place her servo motors, control rods, and moving parts. I am a Computer Science and Biology student by education, not an Electrical or Mechanical Engineer, so there is no guarantee that the design I am working on will even function after it is built. I just have to try my best here too!
  • Meeting the Midwest Furfest Variety Show Deadline (November 18, 2005)– I am steadfast and determined to get the Foxee animatronic robot constructed and programmed to perform an act in time for the Midwest Furfest Variety Show, however not everything concerning the construction time of the robot is within my hands. One primary concern is the shipping time and availability of some of the parts and supplies needed to construct the robot. I do not have the funds to be able to buy all the parts I need to complete the project from start to finish all at once, and because of that I have to buy whatever parts that I can afford as I require them for the building process. Unfortunately, this opens the possibility that if a certain part is unavailable or takes an excessive amount of time to ship that it could halt my progress and throw me behind schedule. I will plan ahead as best as I can and try to reduce this risk to a minimum, but due to Murphy’s Law I cannot eliminate this possibility completely.

Why I am Doing This

During the course of this project many people have asked me why I would take on such a large, difficult, and expensive project with a high risk of failure at a time in my life where I could barely afford to do it. To explain, ever since I was a little kid, one of my attractions at Disneyland was the Enchanted Tiki Room in Adventureland. This Disneyland attraction was the very first audio-animatronic attraction built at the theme park, and it featured talking and singing tropical birds, tiki masks, and plants. When I was a very small child I literally thought that Jose the parrot and all of his other enchanted tiki bird friends truly were alive, and I was completely awed by them. When I returned to Disneyland when I was high school aged I was still awe inspired by the tiki birds, and couldn't believe how well done and lifelike those characters were. I didn't know how at the time, but I swore that I would get my own tiki bird someday!

At Midwest Furfest 2004 I once again was awed by the performance of an animatronic robot. The robot was the animatronic Georgia Belle worn by Kittfoxx, and when I first saw her perform in the 2004 Midwest Furfest variety show my jaw dropped and hit the floor! Georgia Belle was absolutely fantastic, and I once again told myself how I had to one-day build such an animatronic robot myself! The possibility was opened to me when Kittfoxx handed me his typed essay "Electronics for Fursuiters 101." While the paper didn't go into how the frame of Georgia Belle was built or how her servos, push-rods, and other moving parts were positioned, it did go into the circuit boards that she used as well as some of the basic tools and materials needed to construct her. With that paper in hand, I swore that I was going to build an animatronic robot of my own someday!


Visitors have been rocked by Foxee the Animatronic Blue Fox!!!

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All text and original multimedia is © 2001-2006 Daniel S. Keller. All World Rights Reserved. Foxee™ is a registered trademark in the state of Illinois. All other information is copyrighted by their respective owners.