In the Beginning: Paper Air Rockets

Two years ago, we gave my son Joshua a compressed air rocket launcher kit from Make Magazine. You wouldn't think that a bicycle pump, some PVC pipe, and a water sprinkler valve would be the beginning of a multi-year project...

After launching a few rockets in our back yard, I realized that these paper rockets were just as much fun as the Estes model rockets of my youth. At 90 PSI, these rockets could shoot as high as the eye could see. Since they are made of cheap paper, glue, and tape, kids could make as many as they wanted in whatever form they want.

That fall, I attended a training event for Boy Scouts leaders called Wood Badge which takes a group of women & men and has them form a troop and patrols and act like they're scouts for a couple of weekends. The idea is to teach how a well run Boy Scout troop works by doing -- each adult becomes a scout in a patrol and the patrols are led through a series of activities that a well run troop would do together. My patrol, the Beaver patrol naturally, participated in a water rockets competition

bringing home top honors.

One of the most impactful lessons I learned in that training was that the fun & enjoyment we have with activities like this comes not only from the activity itself but as much from the production we make of it. The mechanics of the competition was little more than a soda bottle, bicycle pump, rubber stopper, and duct tape.

The real fun came from the people dressed up as rocket scientists, the radio chatter with mission control, the elaborate setup of the launch pad, etc. I figured that with a little forethought & some choice props, I could repeat that great experience with my own scout troop.

Which brings me to the reason for starting this blog. My day job is writing software for Microsoft, most recently for the robotics team. How can I repeat, improve, and share on my experience with pneumatic rockets with my scout troop? I've decided to combine a few technologies together in search for more fun & teamwork, specifically:

  • Compressed Air Rockets in the spirit of the Make Magazine article & kit
  • A new automated pneumatic launch system based on the FIRST 2012 Pneumatic Base Kit.
  • An Arduino microcontroller to automate the launch system.
  • A robot.
  • A few additional surprises along the way, including some fun experimentation from my coworkers at Microsoft.

As I make progress, I'll post the details here so you can follow along and replicate my journey and results. Along the path, I'll be asking for feedback on whether I've kept the 'fun quotient' intact. I'll be showing off the project first at the Microsoft Garage which is our own version of a hackerspace and I'm hoping to be at both Makerfaire Bay Area & Makerfaire Seattle.