Design – An Example of the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

The Good

A story was passed down in my family which may have been lost had it not been for the Agbot Challenge.  Agbot building requires a certain degree of scrounging for parts.  Scrounging for parts is something two young men were doing around the turn of the nineteenth century at a hardware store in Elizabeth City, North Carolina where my great grandmother worked. She asked the men, who were two brothers about her age, why they needed the parts.  After a bit of shock from hearing their response she shared the information with her supervisor.  Her supervisor laughed and said something to the effect of, “you mean to tell me that two boys — named Orville and Wilbur — are going to build a machine that can fly!!!”

The Wright Flyer Moments After Lift-Off

Orville and Wilbur Wright became very famous for building a machine which could fly.  Getting a new machine to fly for the first time was something others were trying; however, the Wright brothers succeeded where others had failed.  These two worked together continually bouncing ideas off each other.  They tested those ideas while carefully documenting their results.  Despite lacking even a high school education the two brothers managed to engineer one of the most influential innovations of the modern era.

The Bad

In Virginia during the American Civil War the Union Army had an observation balloon camp which was visited by a German named Ferdinand von Zeppelin.  Zeppelin was inspired by the observation balloons to develop a better way to make postal deliveries. He came up with a rigid framed airship.  The idea of the airship captivated German engineers, and with the aid of some industrialist rigid framed airships, or Zeppelins, went into production.  Zeppelins started being faster and able to carry larger payloads than the first airplanes; however, Zeppelins lost their popularity when a zeppelin, famous for the wrong reasons, was filled with hydrogen when the design called for helium.

The zeppelin was designed using solid design processes by highly educated engineers and skilled industrialist,  One pull against the design specifications in one zeppelin marked all zeppelins forever.

The Ugly

One curator from the Smithsonian had a friend named Langley who was conducting tests of a flying machine called aerodrome.  Despite the fact the aerodrome could not be controlled, the Smithsonian put together an exhibit showing the many drawings of different designs Langley had drawn largely on his own.  Later own, many of the aeronautics clubs felt obligated to correct the erroneous displays of the flying machine which had little influence on history.  The design process Langley used is referred to as “design in isolation” and is more than likely the reason the design never really worked.

Our design process has unfortunately turned out to be a mix of all three of these design processes.  One lesson I learned the hard way is any design done in isolation (ex. our Cricket NX-01 design) is highly likely to go the way of the aerodrome.  Politely dismissing suggestions for designs produced largely in isolation can be done by retelling the story of the aerodrome. Good engineering practices are essential if anything as sophisticated as an Agbot is expected to work.

Personally, I believe gaining experience is a big part of participating in any challenge and I hope others can learn from our team’s hard earned experience.

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