Analysis / Technology / Tutorials

Traveling with Hedley the Robotic Skull

20 Jun 2018 12:00pm, by

I’m happy to report that Hedley the robotic skull will be joining me at OSCON.

I’ve puzzled over how to transport him from Orlando to Portland, or even from my house to the local robotics club meetings for quite a while. One thing is for sure when you walk down the street carrying a robotic skull, it definitely attracts curious looks. That’s great for getting attention but lousy for keeping him safe and intact. Also worth mentioning are the logistics of the dangling cables, wall warts, a wireless keyboard and other such paraphernalia needed to make him function. Hedley needs some kind of a protective box when he travels by air, train and car. I’ve come up with an interesting solution.

Thrift Store Score

There are a lot of options for transporting Hedley from one place to another.

I thought about buying a Pelican case. The company has a variety of hard plastic cases suitable for air travel, usually with tongue-and-groove openings and an O-ring seal. These are nice cases that certainly would haul Hedley from here to there. The $160 price tag for their model 1600 (about 25 x 19 x 8-1/2 inches) is a little too steep for my budget.

There’s also the idea of building a wooden/metal/plastic box from scratch. Building a box, while interesting and potential content for a how-to article, will be time-consuming and perhaps difficult to get the durability Hedley deserves when he tumbles down the luggage carousel. I estimate both a wooden crate or a plastic and aluminum angle-built container would probably take between 10 and 20 hours of solid fabrication effort. At a labor rate of $15 per hour, that’s still a minimum of $150, not including materials.

So the decision to buy off the shelf or fab, frequently isn’t very clear.

What I’ve found is a little 18 x 15 x 8-1/2 inch suitcase at a local community thrift store. Not exactly sure about the market for this size, although Hedley fits inside very nicely, with plenty of room for foam padding and peripheral gear. While not as bulletproof as the Pelican case, the $2.13 price tag, including tax made it a no-brainer purchase.

Hedley’s new travel case price tag

The case was on the top of a rack mixed in with luggage of various sizes and shapes. I “run the circuit” through the same thrift store every few weeks looking for items I can use in my steampunk projects.

I hit the suit aisle first. You never know when you might run across a vintage tweed jacket or outlandish plaid vest. Next is usually the brass candlestick holder area. Brass is cheap in thrift stores and provides the raw materials for steampunk weaponry and scientific apparatus.

The last loop takes me through the tool and electronics sections of the store. There’s typically a huge selection of 10-40-year-old stereo amplifiers, old sewing machines, portable drills and large brass floor lamps. The power tools are especially interesting because you can re-purpose the motors for robots and heavy duty jobs. Be careful about paying too much for things that may not work.

To Case Mod or Not to Case Mod

There’s a bit of a conundrum regarding how the case should look. On the one hand, I’d like to steampunk it out, with brass corner braces, leather straps and an antique “aged” look to the outside. The case I found actually is a slightly worn tan/brown color with a light suede pattern.

Hedley’s new travel case

On the other hand, if Hedley travels as “checked” baggage, it probably makes more sense to leave the bag plain and send him through with just a steampunk looking tag. Anything that attracts attention and looks “interesting” might invite a malcontent or nondescript tech industry spy to simply pick Hedley up, case and all and make off with him.

I like the look of this steampunk briefcase. Hedley’s case will probably end up looking a little more like this old train case. A couple of leather straps might just be enough.

Another idea might be to buy/fabricate antique corner pieces that attach to the case after Hedley arrives at the venue. I could put various dials, gauges, gears and gizmos on the outside of the case, using magnets (on the inside) just before when we go up on stage. The corner pieces and gizmos could possibly be 3D printed and then painted to look old and weathered. That would be a cool effect and certainly a great hacker solution.

All I need is a 3D printer and some magnets.

I’m also on the hunt for foam that I can use to pad Hedley when he’s sleeping in his crate. The Pelican cases have fitted black foam inserts that can be customized to fit your gear. Fabric stores seem to be a good bet. I’ll need four to six sheets to keep Hedley comfy.

Add a Few Extras

Putting on a good tech show at conferences involves much more behind the scenes prep than you realize. Not only does your contraption need to work when you say “Good morning” to your audience, you also have to safely get everything to the venue, to begin with.

While a simple gadget case might seem inconsequential, it’s the little things that people notice and add richness to a show. A one-off equipment case here, a steampunk top hat and paisley vest there.

Incorporating a few intangibles with your off-the-shelf hacker projects make you more personable and people will definitely appreciate your extra effort.

Give it a try, you’ll see.


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