There was nothing unusual about the request for information on Quanser's control hardware that we received few months ago, except for the note: "FYI. We use a pair of your LCAMs to drive the beam director of our 8 kw laser power beaming system for NASA Space Elevator Games. We finished second last year." Well, that sparked some interest, because how higher can Quanser system ever get?!
Surprisingly, the competing team is not affiliated to any university or college. A group of hobbiests took on the challenge. "The competition has caught my attention," explained Brian Turner, the captain of the Kansas City Space Pirates team, " because it's something new that hasn't been done before. It's truly a multi-discipline challenge."
Brian gathered a team of other enthusiasts with knowledge and skills in different areas - electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, specialists on solar energy and optics. But the team is not limited to professionals: Dan Leafblad joined as a student at the age of 14.
As the NASA Space Elevator Games rules evolved, requiring the climber to go higher and higher, KC Space Pirates had to turn to more sophisticated system design. Mirrors focusing the sun beam were not sufficient to power the climber up to 1km. Instead, the team turned to laser. More complex system meant more design challenges. "In order to keep the laser aimed as the climber goes up, you need to track it," explained Brian. "We augmented the laser system so that it was able to tell whether the climber was moving upwards, downwards, left or right and used a fast steering mirror to steer the beam. The steering mirror was driven by voice coils." Powering the voice coils turned out to be an issue. After trying several other options, the team came across Quanser's LCAM - linear current amplifier. LCAMs proved to provide ideal operation range in terms of current, voltage and resistance. "We just did the calibration and your solution worked for us beautifully - there was no longer a problem," Brain commented.
Although the team did not win the prize in the 2010, they came pretty close. But what KC Space Pirates can claim are kids inspired to pursue science and engineering not only as a hobby, but also as a career. KC Space Pirates team members often visit middle and high schools to talk about science and engineering. "Competitions like this," says Brian, " turn science into sport. The kids see that participation in science can be fun and cool, just as the participation in sports."
Take Dan Leafblad, one of the KC Space Pirates. He himself joined the team at 14, after hearing Brian talking at the local science club. "Before getting involved with the team, I had no deep interest in science or robotics," says Dan. "After few months with the Space Pirates, it was clear to me I want to do engineering in the future. " As Dan explained, it was great for him to see that he can use the math he learned at home in a real application and design a part of the system. Last fall Dan started his first year at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, Rolla. And no wonder right in his freshmen year, Dan became a member of the Missouri S&T Solar Car Team.
And as for the LCAM, we have to see whether it will "reach" the space. It's great to know it has the power to do so.