Necessity may indeed be the mother of invention, but, even so, some string, a few Popsicle sticks, a bunch of balloons, a toy remote-controlled car discarded at the back of the closet and a whole lot of hot glue don’t hurt, either.
Inspired by his seventh-grade teacher at the Flagstaff Arts and Leadership Academy to find a “safe way” to give candy to trick-or-treaters during a Halloween overshadowed by COVID-19 concerns, Damien Delgado has cobbled together a robot — he prefers to call it a “contraption” — from items found at his east Flagstaff home.
Lest you think this was an easy assignment to be polished off in an afternoon, Delgado needed to employ his knowledge of mathematics and physics, with a dash of artistic flare, too, to get the job done. Calculations were made for weight and density, the ratio between the weight of candy and the number of balloons to be employed, and a few stylistic modifications put in place.
This feat of engineering pulled off by a brainy 12-year-old with a scientific bent has been thoroughly tested and will be employed tonight when the Delgado family travels to another part of a town for a socially distance get-together.
When trick-or-treaters bearing buckets or pillow cases approach Delgado, making sure to stay 6 feet away, he will put four pieces of candy in the Popsicle stick basket, floating above the toy race car attached to nearly a dozen balloons on one end and strings leading to the car’s chassis on the other, and send his mechanical emissary of sweets to do its job.
When the basket is lined up, hovering over the bucket, Delgado will “make the car jolt, just a little” -- which will spring the basket door open and dispense the candy. In a recent demonstration for a journalist who knows more about phys-ed than physics, the “contraption” worked like a charm. It certainly seems a step up, or at least a fun departure, from the 6-foot PVC piping chutes for dispensing candy that many are touting on the internet.
Delgado, sporting a blue NASA T-shirt, a grey DC hat and a vocabulary well beyond his years, said he “always wanted to know how the world works, wanted to see what problems I can solve.” He’s built other “contraptions” just for fun, such as a sprinkles dispenser for cupcakes. But he says this is his most elaborate challenge yet.
He brainstormed: “How about a lever attached to a string, attached to a rod, and when it gets rolled up enough, the string will get pulled and released and there goes the candy?”
OK, but what materials would do the trick?
“My teacher never specified to use things around the house,” he said. “But I thought it’d be easier for people to make it that way. I actually had the balloons laying around. We just had to get the helium (tank).”
One problem to solve was how to keep the Popsicle basket aloft but also nimble enough to have the gate spring open and drop the candy.
“I just used math,” he said, shrugging as if that were the easiest thing in the world. “I had to figure out how many grams could one balloon hold up, then I kept adding until I got to six.
“The basic gist is that with some basic math to figure out how many balloons can lift up 5 grams — or about 4 pieces of candy, which is about what some people give out — I figured out that you will need about 10 or 11 balloons to carry the weight and count the force it will take to open the basket. That basket, with a door that needs just a little bit of force but still strong enough to keep the candy inside, is tied to a remote control car which makes the basket navigational, and a second string will be tied to the door of the basket which will be glued onto a rod, which will be attached to the wheel.”
For Delgado, it is. His classmates on Zoom were impressed when he gave them a demonstration. No idea, yet, on what grade he’ll get on the project. But there’s a good bet that he’ll pass.
“I want to work at NASA,” he said. “Actually, I want to be a mathematician. I love math. It’s really fun solving the problems we’re given. It makes my mind work and turn it over.”