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The Engineering Edge – Dinosaurs

Do you or someone you know have a soft spot for dinosaurs? Dinosaurs are pretty popular. So if you happen to be a theme park on an island where you can still walk in the footprints of dinosaurs – that are 125 million years old – having some dinosaurs in your collection is a great idea.

via GIPHY

And, way back in the ’70s a theme park on the Isle of Wight, which is just off the south coast of the UK, did just that.

It was so unusual that a children’s TV program, Blue Peter, followed the whole thing – from the making of the fiberglass dinosaurs in Yorkshire to their transportation by lorry and the final installation at Blackgang Chine theme park on the Isle of Wight. Blackgang is located between the sea and a cliff – so a helicopter was required to airlift the dinosaurs into place. Can you imagine looking up and seeing a dinosaur dangerously dangling overhead?

Over the years, thousands of little people had climbed over them and had their photos taken with them. So by 2012 they were looking a little old and dated – so the owner of the park decided to get the technology – and so developed “Restricted Area 5 “ – with animatronic dinosaurs.

The pièce de résistance (it is nearly in France after all) is a T-Rex – larger than a double-decker bus – that you view from a platform that takes you to mouth – and teeth – level. Under the platform are some very low base frequency speakers, so when the dinosaur roars, you can feel the vibration through your feet. 

This all was publicised with great fanfare – but, just before the busy summer period – when over 80% of the park’s customers visit – the T-Rex died!

The manufacturer was in China, and new parts would take over six weeks to arrive.

So I was called in.

I put a call out to my community of electronics experts, computer programmers, etc and offered them pizza, cake and the opportunity to hack robot dinosaurs. I know how to incentivise an engineer!

Together, we replaced the broken parts and changed the control board to a Raspberry Pi Computer. If you haven’t come across Raspberry Pi’s before, they are the size of a credit card, cost about £30 and were initially designed to encourage children to get into computer programming. However, it was perfectly suited for the job.

Now Blackgang Chine is a small park – the staff double up with different roles – gardeners, ride attendants, car parking and maintenance. So after the summer, I was asked to teach any that had an interest in how to program the Raspberry Pi. I organised a hack session – where we played with different bits of park equipment and also with children’s toys. One of the workshops I ran was to make a toy dinosaur nod when somebody tweeted it. We made it into an “Internet of Things” device.

Nowadays, animatronic dinosaurs are common – I’ve even seen them in garden centres and zoos.

I went back to Blackgang this summer for The Engineering Edge – listen below – and was surprised at what I found. I know the Park does not have huge budgets, and yet there was a new dragon at the entrance that roared up out of a packing case. Closer inspection revealed this was a piece of kit that had been repurposed and repainted – and now had a much greater effect than lost down in the old "liquorice" area. Proving you don't need big budgets to make a big impact.

I was also impressed at how the clever planting of five years ago has transformed the Restricted Area Five. Although it has a tarmac path, it felt like I was beating my way through a jungle. The dinosaurs themselves hadn't changed much – although I spotted that one of the brachiosauruses had a shorter neck – a casualty of the high winds on the clifftop.

Once I jumped the fence to the T-Rex enclosure (which Dan the producer then also had to do with all the sound equipment!) I was really pleased to see inside the control box the non-invasive current clamp around the motor wires. What an excellent evolution of the IoT toy dino we did in the workshop, to an actual useful IoT thing that tells the tech team that the motors are pulling too much or too little current – without them having to come down and measure it for themselves. This means they can take action BEFORE the dinosaur actually stops working – and so the visitor never knows that there was a problem!

I am delighted at how the team have taken the building blocks I gave them, and have developed and improved and made it their own.

Listen to The Engineering Edge podcast now

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Explore Blackgang Chine in pictures

I am an inventor, engineer, writer and presenter. Other stuff: Royal Academy of Engineering Visiting Professor of Engineering: Creativity and Communication at Brunel University London; Founder of the Guild of Makers (www.guildofmakers.org); Fellow of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and have a PhD in bubbles; Judge on BBC Robot Wars.

4 Dec 2019, 13:23