Recently, engineer and YouTube sensation Allen Pan squared off with Grant Imahara in Project Heroes, where Mouser partnered with Marvel to build Captain America’s Shield and Iron Man’s Gauntlet. The end result was surprising. Not only was it out-of-the-box, it was a shield unlike any other we, or others, have seen.
But to be fair: when tasked with engineering something that’s never been created before, it’s often different from what most would imagine it to be. Just think back to the Wright brothers’ first airplane. It looked more like a flying box kite than an aircraft we all envision today. However, every new invention provides a starting point from which others can build upon and refine – ultimately leading to something that’s even better. Case in point: engineers are improving on Henry Ford’s idea of the automobile every day – with many thinking it should have a mind of its own.
Mouser sat down with Allen afterwards to find out more about this engineer who continually defies the norm. We wanted to learn what goes on inside his head and leads to his different design ideas. Here’s what he had to say.
Mouser: What got you started in making superhero tech and posting YouTube vids? Was it reading comic books as a kid, or following the movies?
Allen: As a kid, I was more into the animated TV show versions of superheroes than the comics. Like the ’90s Spiderman, X-men, and Batman cartoons and later stuff like Static Shock and Batman Beyond. I got started in YouTube about 8 months ago after I made my little brother Alex a birthday present: a wrist mounted device that replicated an attack from the anime Naruto called Rasengan. I shot a video of it that got some attention on Facebook, so I uploaded it to YouTube and figured I should make and record more stuff.
Mouser: What is your background: engineer, maker, fanboy? Most engineers follow the traditional role
of working for a DoD, technology, automotive, electronics company after college.
Allen: Graduated in 2012 with a BS in EE from USC. I actually did exactly that after college. Right after graduation I had a job lined up with a small defense company. Had a secret security clearance and everything, we worked with GPS satellites. After 4 months, I left because I hated being in a cubicle and feeling like I was just gonna do that for the rest of my life.
Mouser: Can you describe your attraction to Marvel’s Captain America character?
Allen: Captain America is a great character because he starts off as this scrawny little loser. So when he gets his powers, he understands the weight of using those powers to do the right thing. His abilities don't change him; they just let him do a lot more with the same moral compass, like even if he hadn't gotten the serum he'd still be trying to fight Hydra, just really poorly.
Mouser: What was it like working on this project and attempting to outengineer Grant?
Allen: Really crazy! Grant and I both graduated from USC with degrees in EE, and I freakin' grew up watching him on Mythbusters. I stood in line to watch him give a talk at USC when I was in college. So I definitely felt like Rocky going up against Apollo Creed, and I knew whatever I made was gonna have to work well. At the same time though, it's like if I make something that totally sucks compared to what Grant made, that's totally understandable. Dude's been in the business of making things for decades, and I've been on YouTube for 8 months. So it was like, I really want to impress Grant and have video evidence that I can go toe-to-toe with him. But at the same time, if I don't manage to do that, it's actually alright.
Mouser: Is there an engineering process you always try to follow?
Allen: I'm still trying to find a good workflow! Typically, I start off with a lot of research and googling to see what other people have done in whatever area I'm working in. Like for the shield, I was looking up videos of people putting umbrellas on their drones and creating Cosplay armor with foam. So that happens a lot, looking into weird subcultures for information. You'd be surprised how much knowledge you can find on forums. Then, I try to do some preliminary tests, just on each component of the project separately. Like can I make a drone fly with a big hull on top; can I get decent readings from this accelerometer; can I control the drone via transmitter on an Arduino? If the components all work, then it's just a matter of putting them all together… so my process tends to be very bottom heavy. Most of the hours are in research and development, and then bringing everything together is relatively quick.
Mouser: The end result is definitely a unique take of what a flying shield is. Can you provide insights on
the out-of- box thinking that went into this particular build?
Allen: It was pretty much just, how can I make a shield that can return to its user like Captain America's shield? In Avengers: Age of Ultron Cap's got a gauntlet with sci-fi electromagnets that can call the shield back to him, so I had that in mind when I thought, well just stick a drone on it! From there it's just a matter of how am I going to actually stick a shield on a drone and actually have it be able to fly, and be able to fly back to me specifically without having to use the remote control.
Mouser: How many hours did Captain America’s shield build take?
Allen: Basically full time for a month, so like 160 hours.
Mouser: What advantages did using Analog Devices and Molex components bring to the project? Which
components did you end up using?
Allen: Analog Devices manufactures a lot of staples of the Making community. I mean I was going through my parts drawer when I was first testing parts of the shield and I found an Analog Devices digital potentiometer that I got in a kit when I was in high school. In the Arduino IDE one of the example sketches included in the library is a sketch for reading an Analog Devices accelerometer, which I also used to control the shield. So, that's a really tried-and-true brand. Molex had some great specialty cable; and I ended up using their Temp-Flex cables, since they're flexible and shielded, which is nice when you've got to send an analog signal from your arm to a backpack.
Mouser: What were some of the hurdles/design challenges to overcome with the build?
Allen: Just making the thing fly! Unlike Hollywood, the laws of physics actually apply with gravity being the main villain. The drone I used had a comfortable payload of 100 grams, so the weight budget was pretty limited. In the end, I think the shield came in at like 96 grams, like you've got to weigh how many grams the paint adds – it's that close. So, the shield had to come in at that weight, but still be sturdy enough to ram into a target. So, I tried all kinds of exotic and expensive foams that all ended up sucking. In the end: the best stuff was these foam sheets from the dollar store. I was really kicking myself when I tried that stuff sort of on a lark, and it ended up working beautifully – for only a dollar!
Mouser: If you had longer, would there be anything you would like to improve upon?
Allen: The finish was a little rushed. If I had more time, I'd have given more time for the paint to cure. I had to mask parts of the shield without adequate time between coats; so, parts of the shield are a little rough close up. You can't tell on camera, but I can see it!
Mouser: Describe a highlight of the build.
Allen: Testing the entire system for the first time and seeing that it was actually going to work.
Mouser: Is there an engineering mantra you follow or any words of wisdom you’d like to share?
Allen: Fail fast! It's almost cliché if you work in tech; but really try to test the components of the project that you're the least sure about first, to see what's viable or not as soon as possible.
Mouser: Overall, how does this project rank compared to your other past projects?
Allen: I'd say it was about as challenging to make as the lightsaber, since it was something that hadn't ever been done before. But, I find myself there a lot, where I'm googling for hours on end only to find that I'm pretty much on my own. Nobody's put a 2-ft. shield on a drone before… and I found that it's probably because it's really hard to do!
Mouser: How do you handle social backlash/critics of your designs?
Allen: You can't impress everyone, and it's so much easier to armchair engineer something after the fact. Like you get a lot of comments on any project along the lines of "why didn't you do it this way?" or "that's dumb!". Well, I'd much rather be building these new things that have never existed before than just leaving comments on other people's projects on how I would have done it. But if someone brings some valid, constructive criticism to the table, you should file it away and consider it for the next project.
My name's Allen, I make pretend things into real things! You can follow my projects on Youtube at Sufficiently Advanced, or tweet me at @AnyTechnology.
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