Part-time Passions: December 2014

These IEEE members spend their free time making street art and high-power rockets

8 December 2014

Andrew Dawkins

Making statements

For two years, IEEE Member Andrew Dawkins has been creating pasteups, or paper cutouts of illustrations that can include images, words, and designs pasted on public walls. They are meant to be attention-grabbing if not controversial.

The art form is a natural for Dawkins, 26. From an early age he has expressed himself through drawings. “Instead of writing down how I felt about things, it was much easier to draw them out in a visual diary,” he says. “Eventually, I began adding phrases to the images.”

Dawkins’s first few pasteups, which depicted cannibalism, might have made some people uneasy. But he has since shifted to images that are, as he says, “cool, carefree, and less pretentious.”

One of his latest works, for example, revolves around Big Red and Little Blue, two humanlike characters he created that have no facial features. Dawkins says he wants people to enjoy spotting the characters: “It’s nice if I’m strolling around and I see people stop to take a closer look or just go, ‘There’s another one!’”

Dawkins, who earned a mechatronic engineering degree in 2009 from Curtin University in Bentley, Australia, went to work upon graduation in nearby Fremantle as a design engineer at Maritime Engineers, a consulting firm that provides naval architecture and design services. There he worked on a ship’s anchor that can be released remotely in an emergency. He recently moved to Melbourne and applied to a master’s degree program in sustainable energy technologies at RMIT University.

He has long admired street art. Growing up in a northern suburb of Perth, in Western Australia, he admired the huge murals painted on underpasses near his home. Then, traveling alone in Europe in 2011, he was captivated by the street art in and around Berlin and was inspired to look into pasteups.

“You can put so much work and thought into creating them, but the key is to place them in the right surroundings that will add to the art and make people stop and think,” he says. “I really enjoy doing pasteups that interact with their settings.” For one of his recent efforts, he placed his Little Blue character hanging off the edge of an exhaust vent panel on a building while Big Red stood on top of it, as if looking for Blue.

Back from Berlin, he moved to an artsy region outside Perth, where an abandoned power station near a beach had become the local street artists’ mecca. Its walls were covered with murals and spray-painted pieces—some, particularly in the United States, might call it graffiti—by artists who were practicing new techniques.

To make his pasteups, Dawkins first designs his illustrations using software and then prints them out. He has experimented with paper of different thicknesses and adhesives including store-bought wallpaper paste and home-brewed wheat pastes. Some pastes degrade quickly, crinkle the paper too much, or are too thick to fill wall crevices or hold the paper fast to a wall. Dawkins currently favors butcher paper, which is relatively thin, and a homemade paste made of flour, sugar, and water.

“I get geeky trying to find the best combination,” he says. “The way you might approach an engineering problem is fundamentally similar. You have to concentrate on one thing, think about it, plan it, and execute it.”

John Ballard

Rocket man

IEEE Member John Ballard, 58, calls himself a classic “born-again rocketeer.” The story of how he got into what’s known as high-power rocketry is a common one, he says: Parent helps kid build a rocket; kid thinks rockets are unbelievable fun; kid becomes a teenager. “It’s just a slippery slope from there,” the electrical engineer says with a laugh.

Although Ballard is self-taught, he shared his love of rocketry with his kids some 15 years ago when he helped them fashion rockets from toilet-paper tubes and cereal boxes. The children would shoot them into the air using off-the-shelf rocket motors. For Ballard, at least, his hobby has since evolved to high-power rocketry. Instead of plain old model rockets, he relies on higher-impulse-range motors. His rocket is powered by four kilograms of fuel. And hobbyists like him are required to be certified by an organization such as the Tripoli Rocketry Association, in Bellevue, Neb., to comply with safety regulations.

Three levels of certification determine the complexity of the rockets a hobbyist may launch. Ballard received the highest level—Level 3—five years ago. Not only are his rockets allowed to fly highest, they have onboard electronics that measure parameters such as acceleration, peak altitude, and velocity and can deploy a parachute to land them safely on the ground.

Rather than using commercial components, Ballard designs his own rockets and makes them from scratch. He typically tweaks and builds on his past projects or works off others’ designs. For his latest endeavor, a 4.5-meter-long, 114-millimeter-wide rocket he named Scrapyard Cinderella, Ballard repurposed scrap material including petroleum fiberglass piping and plastic pieces bought from local businesses as well as flattened aluminum beer cans. The rocket weighed about 17 kilograms at liftoff.

He spends about US $4,000 a year designing and building electronics-laden rockets that can soar from 1,500 to 4,500 meters into the sky. He can fire them once a month, along with several dozen members of his local rocketry club, from the Black Rock Desert, about a 2-hour drive from his home in Sparks, Nev. The flights are conducted under a Federal Aviation Administration waiver that temporarily grants airspace to club members.

As a production engineer for Sierra Nevada Corp., a defense electronics contractor in Sparks, Ballard builds and tests secure wireless computing and communications devices. The technical aspects of high-power rocketry attract him as an engineer, he says. For each machine he builds, for example, he has to calculate whether the case for the rocket’s motor—which he makes himself—will be able to withstand the pressure of the propellant. He uses on-paper calculations involving solid finite-element modeling.

“Rocketry is multi­disciplinary,” he says. “It exposes you to aero­dynamics, machining, materials, mechanics, and thermodynamics. You must learn enough about all of these different areas to meet your goal.”

His garage has become a workshop dedicated to building rockets. The time he spends there depends on the season, he says. Winters, he can tinker with the rockets for hours, two or three evenings a week. Summers are mainly for outdoor tests and launches. He doesn’t really know how many hours he devotes to rocketry. “It’s a passion,” he says. “I’m afraid to know how much time I spend on it.”