Machinations

The sun will explode in 5 billion years, and robots are humanity's best hope to escape. Three guys are working on a plan. In a garage. In Heath, Texas.

A few miles east of Lake Ray Hubbard, deep in the heart of the orderly suburb of Heath, a halogen beam cuts into the darkness surrounding Barry Jordan's two-car garage. There, amid the glow, Jordan hosts another session of Robot Builder's Night Out, attended, as usual, by his partners Eric Yundt and Kip Moravec.

The men are three of the more committed--or some might suggest, committable--members of the Dallas Personal Robotics Group, the oldest robot builders club in the nation, which operates by the motto, "It's a lot harder than it looks."

Lately, robots have been attracting a new generation of admirers, thanks in part to the popularity of shows like BattleBots, in which remote-controlled metal monsters, bearing names such as "Your Worst Nightmare," beat each other's batteries out for prime-time audiences. Jordan's garage represents the less flashy but more authentic side of a boting--an interdisciplinary hobby carried out by self-admitted geeks and mechanical wizards who strive to create robots that can survive independently of humans.

These botters revile the mindless destruction of BattleBots, choosing instead to embrace the ethics of science fiction authors, namely Isaac Asimov, who laid out a vision of a future in which dangerously superior robots work for the benefit of mankind.

Nerds they may be. Ninnies they are not.

By day Jordan is a structural engineer, whose best-known contribution to commercial architecture was to design the first rapid oil change building. Dressed in a pair of Wrangler jeans, Jordan hoists a boot up on a workbench and explains why his garage resembles a high school shop class.

"Before I got married, I raced dirt bikes," Jordan says. "When I got married, my wife said, 'You're not riding dirt bikes anymore.' So I traded in those toys for these toys."

Jordan is talking about the industrial-sized lathe that consumes one-half of the back wall. There is also a brake, which Jordan describes as a "giant paper cutter for metal."

"Barry's got the undisputed best toys," says Yundt, a tech-support guy by trade, whose contribution to this group is his computer programming skills.

Tonight's task is making "bot bones," which, like human bones, create a sturdy frame that protects the sensitive electronic brains that bring robots to life. Ultimately, the trio hopes to mass produce these aluminum bones and sell them via the robot hobbyists' handbook, Nuts & Volts magazine. The bones will be part of a bigger robot builder's kit, which will come complete with gears, encoders and motor mounts, all made right here in Jordan's garage.

At the moment, the enterprise is ground to a halt because the drill Yundt has been using is mysteriously stalled. That the 4-foot-tall contraption even works is a feat of engineering. Originally, it was a commercial-grade microscope, salvaged by another group member whose wife ordered it removed from her garage. Brought here, Jordan hacked off the lens and replaced it with a drill, attaching it to the machine with a thick rubber band Yundt lifted off his wife's vacuum cleaner. The group then wired the machine to an old computer, which Yundt uses to program the drill.

"A big part of boting is making tools you need to make what you want to make. It's like the old days, when the blacksmith made his own nails," Yundt says.

Moravec, an electrical engineer, wants to use the lathe to drill a hole into the center of his robot's battery, but he can't plug the machine into Jordan's power box because it lacks an outlet. Moravec started building a new outlet, only to discover he needs parts. Time to go to Home Depot. At 10 p.m., it's past normal business hours, but that's OK. Moravec says, "We know where the 24-hour ones are."

Jordan, meanwhile, is about to attach a pair of jumper cables to a plastic bucket that's lined with a lead plate and filled with sulfuric acid. "You might want to step back," he says.

A pipe is laid across the bucket and from it a bone hangs into the acid. Jordan attaches one of the cables to the pipe and the other to the lead plate. He clamps the other ends onto a power supply, which he rescued from a burning building and nursed back to life.

If everything works, Jordan will send 12 volts of electricity through the cables and into the lead, causing the acid to peck away at the bone, like a woodpecker on a tree. Later, he'll dip the bone in a vat of dye. The acid holes will absorb the dye, changing the bone's color to an eye-pleasing red. This is called anodizing, normally the last step in the bone-making process. Jordan is skipping ahead, mostly because anodizing is fun.

"It's like coloring Easter eggs," he says, "once you get past the dangerous part."

Jordan flips a switch, and soon the acid begins to bubble.

Then it begins to smoke.

"That's hydrogen sulfide gas coming off there," he says, reaching for a fan. "Not too good to breathe."

Behind him, Yundt pumps his fist and emits a victorious hoot. After three hours of futzing, he has figured out why the "page up" key on his keyboard is having no effect on his drill. Now he hits the key and the machine groans, lifting its bit into drilling position, which is the same position it was in the last time Yundt had it working.

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