Featured Author: Natantus

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It is a rare pleasure to interview an author in person at the Instructables lab in San Francisco. I had that pleasure this week as natantus, better known to his friends and family as Chris Gilmer, stopped by for lunch, a tour, and an ambush-style paparazzo interview. I asked him about NASA asking him for some help with a controller for their ATHLETE rover prototype, what it's like as a FIRST robotics coach, and his brilliant idea for making instructions (particularly parts lists) more intelligible. Read on to learn more about this fascinating author...

How’d you discover our secret converted-salon lab?

The robot out front was the first sign. I looked up and saw the robot while I was across the street. As it turns out, several people in my new office knew that you were here and just didn’t tell me.  When I said I was going down to meet you, the guys in my office expressed an interest in coming by and I'd love to bring them. [Ed. note: come on, down.]

What about the website? I imagine it was easier to find.

You guys were in Wired in 2006 if I remember right. That’s how I found out about you. I decided to make an Instructable just so I could be on this new, cutting-edge website. My poor mom put up with the first project I made. It was a water wiggler for her bird bath. You could buy one for $30 and I figured I could make one for $10.  In the end it cost me $25, and it didn’t work all the time.  She loved it.  I still get comments on it from people with great suggestions to improve on it.

You’ve been a member for a long time, but with only a few  projects on the site. How do you primarily use Instructables?

I go through it for ideas and topics I’m really interested in, then I favorite them and come back to them later. I love CNC devices, robots, programming and anything with LEDs. If you ask my fiancee she'd tell you I'm always trying to make things glow around the house.  We even made an LED table using an Instructable.  Make it glow is the next challenge I'd like to participate in.

I also have a host of new Instructables I can build now that I’ve built a laser.  I know I'll find some great ideas from the users on your site.

When you volunteered with FIRST did you use Instructables?

No. But... I’m not sure why. FIRST has a forum system that is dense with information, but it can be hard to find what you need, especially if you're a newcomer. They have step by step instructions hidden in their forums for some really neat stuff, but I'd really like to see them make this information easier to find.

I believe FIRST is a great place to learn about building robots because they make it really clear-cut for all levels of experience. I learned a lot from them because they made the different systems very clear.

I believe kids in these programs need access to tools in order to make really good robots.  That's why I support machine shops in schools and for public use.

Can you tell us a little bit about your MakerCafe idea? 

I started working on this idea a couple years ago because there is a feature I want on Instructables that you don’t already have.  What most Instructables lack is a nicely-formatted bill of materials detailing suppliers and costs.  I also wanted to be able to cross reference those items to projects on Instructables so I could figure out what I could build with the junk I had at home.  This is a project I want to get back to someday.

Tell us a little bit about how your Roomba-hacking and how it got you involved with the JPL ATHLETE project.

While I was working at JPL some friends of mine and I were thinking bout building a kit for the Roomba, that it might be a fun DIY adventure and also a good business idea.  We got as far as splicing a Wiimote into a Roomba, using some great Instructables to help us, and got to driving it around the house.

Later that year I was at a great talk at JPL by Dr. Jeff Norris about using gaming ideas in our lab projects.  He mentioned controlling military robots with Xbox controllers, so after the talk I told him about using the Wiimote for the Roomba and how cool it was.  He asked if I could show him a demo since they were struggling with a good controller for the ATHLETE project.  I stayed up all night building him a cool demo with the Wiimote and some Xbees and he was impressed, giving me a budget and 6 weeks to build him half a dozen models for ATHLETE.  Now I worked on the next Mars Rover, Curiosity, which is going up this month, but nothing was quite as fun as building those remotes for ATHLETE. [Ed. note: You can see them use it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sz024ENb3ks]

Tell us a little about your most successful project, The Garduino Upgrade?

I'm not a very creative person when it comes to making a new project, but I think I'm pretty good when it comes to combining two projects I like.  I read about the original Garduino and the Tweet-a-Watt in Make Magazine.  I figured it would be great to have both of those things together, an automatic garden I could monitor on Twitter.  I started building it but kept putting off the Garduino right up until the Arduino contest entries were due, and then I just made it.  I had a lot of fun doing it.  I especially like the feedback I've gotten on this and other Instructables.

This project and another have been in a couple of your ebooks.  I like knowing that they've had an impact.  It makes it feel "real", as though my projects are more permanent, that other people have copies somewhere and will read them in the future.

Do you have an advice for makers, tinkerers, and other people who would like to build stuff?

My advice is simple, "Just do it." When you want to be a maker you just have to get started and it's a little bit [of skill-building and growth] at a time. I've been building things all my life but seriously making and hacking for at least six years now.  Only recently did I finally look around my apartment and feel a bit like a mad scientist.

It's just patience. You'll collect all your skills and tools and stuff over time and eventually you'll get there having a blast along the way.

And the other thing, just share everything that you do. You're going to get really good ideas form the community that you never would have thought of, and there's nothing like seeing someone else build a cool project from something you started.

Any cool projects in your future?

I'd like to do some work with robotics and prosthetics.  My uncle lost his fingers not long ago in a work incident and I'd love to help build him some functional replacements.  The problem with prosthetics is they can be really expensive when you buy them professionally.  I wish there were more DIY prosthetics.  There's a great need, not only with our friends and family but also with Veterans.  I've often toyed with the idea of making some DIY kits, like replacement arms and legs, that would be totally functional and affordable.  My fiancee has a lot of interest in this too, and I'd love to work with her on this.