What seemed like a silly idea

Throughout University, we had these Engineering Design courses, where we would go through a defined process to design something.

In my second year, my team submitted “A System for Maintaining Driver Alertness <link to pdf>“.

A System for Maintaining Driver Alertness
A System for Maintaining Driver Alertness

I’m not sure where we got the idea, and the solution we proposed was gimmicky, even at the time, but the exercise was more about design process – my team did fine. Imagine my surprise, when I was browsing for something else recently on AliExpress (and on Amazon), that some company builds and sells a device similar to our proposed design.

Commercial Driver Alertness Device
Commercial Driver Alertness Device – As Seen on Amazon

As automakers have added lane following systems and basic autopilots to their cars over the last ten years, they’ve also invested in systems that ensure drivers remain alert to supervise these systems and are ready to take over. Tesla’s systems have sensors to ensure hands remain on the steering wheel, Cadillac’s Supercruise has a camera that ensures the driver’s eyes are focused on the road ahead. What seemed like a silly idea is now a little industry…

RC Sailboat Version 2

Six years ago, I built a wifi-controlled pop bottle sailboat. Smartphone control wasn’t great, so I turned my decommissioned weather station into a remote control.

RC Pop Bottle Sailboat, V2
RC Pop Bottle Sailboat, V2

My re-used weather station project board is a homemade Arduino board, with an APC220 transceiver radio. I added two rotary potentiometers for rudder and sail control. I removed the Raspberry Pi in the boat, and connected another APC220 transceiver to the Arduino Uno that controlled the sail and rudder servos.

We drove to Downsview Park and launched the boat.

RC Sailboat Launch
RC Sailboat Launch

Control still wasn’t great:

  • Controlling the sail and the rudder is fine, but with the boat just floating on the pop bottles, the rudder has very little effect. Our boat design itself needs improvement – I think this is currently the greatest issue.
  • My transmitter and receiver code could use some optimization – as I was troubleshooting at home, my code limited updates, and was only sampling every second – controls seemed “laggy”.
  • I’m using very inexpensive TowerPro MG995 servos, which many advise against using. They were fine for playing around with interfacing, but they are slow, they seem to have a hard time holding their position, as well as not consistently reaching their programmed position.
RC Boat Halfway Across The Pond
RC Boat Halfway Across The Pond

I did write my phone number on the boat in case the boat got stuck in the middle, and someone else eventually found it. In the end, it wasn’t required. We just played with the controls as the wind carried it to the other side – probably about 100 m.

Downsview Park Test Run
Downsview Park Test Run

Maybe some time over the next 6 years, I’ll optimize the RC code, install better servos, and improve the boat design by adding a keel.