Maker Profile: Jonathan Tippett's Prosthesis Project

By Norman Chan

Jonathan Tippett has been conceptualizing and building experimental machines for years. His group's most well-known machine is the Mondo Spider, but their next project is even more ambitious. We chat with Jonathan about the origin, design, and progress of Prosthesis, a walking mech that he calls "The Anti-Robot".

The machines that roam the grounds of MakerFaire spread a wide-ranging gamut. We've encountered R2D2 droids, human-scale cupcake go-karts, and even an honest to goodness giant mechanical spider. The Mondo Spider, which we first saw in 2010, has been a mainstay of maker gatherings like Burning Man and MakerFaire since its creation. It even made its way to Las Vegas for this year's CES, where I had the pleasure of driving it. Sitting in its cockpit and controlling it is transformative--you feel physically connected to the 1700 pound machine as it clanks and stomps across the pavement, rocking from side to side as eight steel legs simulate the gait of a walking spider (courtesy of a Klann linkage design mechaism).

Image credit: Jonathan Tippett

But for the team that built the Mondo Spider--a collective of makers based in Vancouver, it was only the precursor to larger ambitions. Jonathan Tippett, one of the Mondo Spider's co-creators, has been working on its follow-up for the past six years. That project is Prosthesis, a four-limbed walking machine that's more exo-skeleton than mech--as least in concept. In an email exchange, Jonathan explained to us the genesis of both the Mondo Spider and Prosthesis, and why these robotic art projects are both great learning tools and mediums of expression.

How did you get started making ambitious robotic art projects? Where did you learn your skillset in mechanical engineering and technology?

I've always lived, and breathed machines. I think they are beautiful and expressive. It started when I was about five or six, taking apart anything I could get my hands on. That turned into [an interest in] LEGO, which blossomed into a 1/10th scale electric RC car obsession. In those days there was no internet, no YouTube, and no Wikipedia. You had no alternative but to learn by doing. In high school I took metal shop instead of an elective. When I graduated, it was straight to Mechanical Engineering at The University of British Columbia. There, I built race cars, autonomous blimps, jousting cars and devoured engineering theory. [It's also where] I met all my crazy engineering friends.

Photo credit: Jonathan Tippett

It was through these connections that I came to participate in the annual Vancouver Junk Yard Wars events [inspired by the TV show of the same name]. We built tree climbers, frisbee throwers, music makers, wave generators, and of course, during the watershed year, a walking machine. I built my own 150 sq ft metal shop in my garage and filled it with as many machines as I could afford. I bought my own TIG welder, mill, lathe and took a six week TIG welding course. People would ask "What are you building it for?" to which I would just say "I dunno yet, I just need a shop..." And like the Field of Dreams, the project came. It was The Mondo Spider. That shop became a nucleus of creation for the Mondo Spider legs, and is where I actually began to hone my craft at building giant robots, along with "The Leg Team", Ryan Johnston and Sam Meyer.

You are the co-founder of eatART, a place for you to work with your many collaborators. Can you explain how that lab works and how it's organized?

That was really the next chapter in the story. With the Mondo Spider built, and our ambitions spurred, we all realized we needed more than my 150 sq ft shop (which I still have by the way--it is now a hallowed place). Through the Spider, we met John and Rob Cunningham [Rob was also the Art Director at Relic, and the producer of Homeworld--Norm]. Rob, John's son, owned Daisy, a 3.5 ton solar powered tricycle, and John had a vision for a creative nexus where similar machines could be incubated and used to teach people about alternative energy and the use of engineering for creative means. Mondo Spider co-creators Leigh Christie, Charlie Brinson and myself joined forces with the Cunninghams and we founded eatART. I built and ran the lab for three years, putting Prosthesis on hold in order to establish an infrastructure and community, which is now hundreds strong and over four years in the running.

eatART (Energy Awareness Through ART), is a registered educational charity, with a mandate to support independent artists who are building large scale, technically sophisticated artwork with an energy awareness theme. It is like a family combined with a university. It is 100% volunteer powered and relies completely on donors, sponsors and project deployments to keep the doors open. All the creations belong to independent artists, who supply all their own tools and materials, and train and assemble their own teams. eatART provides the space and the network.

Involvement in the foundation is basically earned in sweat. Most people leading a project have put in at least a year building an existing project, or several years building the organization, as in my case. It is a magic place where everyone is working for the passion, the camaraderie and the cause. The caliber of skills assembled under the leadership of the various projects is staggering, and the cross pollination is exponential.

Can you walk us through some of the design and creation of the Mondo Spider?

The original Mondo Spider inspiration, via eatART

The genesis of The Mondo Spider can be traced back to 2005, at the annual Vancouver Junk Yard Wars competition. This is a small affair my friends and I would put on each year to build some contraption in 48 hours. That year I was not going to participate as I had already embarked on my early plans for Prosthesis. But when I heard the challenge was to build a walking machine, I had no choice. The machine was planned and materials scrounged for two weeks leading up to the competition, as the rules allowed. It was built in a blinding fury of 48 hours from bike parts, door hinges and 2x4's. It made it a a grand total of 20 steps before shearing off a bike crank, never to walk again.

But its spirit lives on today in The Mondo Spider. Much of that team, most of us UBC engineering friends, went on inspired by the art we'd seen at Burning Man to build the Spider to run wild. We got a small grant from Burning Man, spent three months of intensive engineering and CAD work and then six months of frantic fabrication. On the day of its unveiling (auspiciously on the same campus that is now the home of the eatART Laboratory) it stomped triumphantly through the crowds of friends and family for three straight hours without so much as a loose nut.

What's your philosophy when it comes to making these incredible machines? What story are you trying to tell?

Each machine has its own story. In the case of The Mondo Spider it was "Let's do this because we can!". We were young and want to test out our newly minted engineering skills. They worked. We have since converted it to electric and it is has become the perfect metaphor for the energy evolution that we are all such proponents of, and that is central to eatART's message. If you can convert a 750kg walking spider from gas to electric, surely you can convert anything!

In the case of Prosthesis, there is far more intention. Prosthesis is an expression of many deep rooted passions I hold. Prosthesis has had an electric heart form the beginning, but it goes beyond the technology, and back to the human behind it. I am building Prosthesis to try and reconnect with our physical existence by using the very technology that threatens to numb us in to a flat state of virtualized experience. Its connection with the eatART message is that of amplifying human action and the responsibility that brings with it. It is also a symphony of energies exchanging with every step. The opportunities for learning are endless.

Image credit: Jonathan Tippett

And what was the genesis of the Prosthesis project idea?

Photo credit: Jonathan Tippett

Prosthesis was actually conceived before the Mondo Spider. Inspired by my childhood fascination with dinosaurs and excavators, the notion that I could build something of this scale took root whenI saw a dinosaur sized pair of steel legs at Burning Man and thought; "I could make that, only walking!". I was diverted by The Mondo Spider project and building and running the eatART Lab for four years while I incubated Prosthesis.

The original concept was to build a walking machine that could operated by a single pilot using their entire body. I wanted to build a machine that expanded the scope of human experience. Based on by my experience with mountain biking, snowboarding and Capoeira (a Brazilian martial art), it was an continuation of the age old pursuit of physical mastery, getting in "the zone", particularly in the contest of human machine hybrid systems. Its first form was gorilla-like, but I soon realized that the machine had no connection to gorillas, it was a sports machine. Once I clarified that, it took form almost explosively.

Guide us through the design of Prosthesis--how is it part art project, part engineering project?

At its core, Prosthesis is an art project that uses engineering as the medium. Its primary purpose is to explore the process of physical mastery in the context of a human/machine hybrid system. Prosthesis is an experience machine. Every aspect of the design comes back to the pilot experience. Every design decision ultimately hinges around the question "What would the pilot want?"

The basic architecture of 4 legs in a row came out of a need to achieve lateral stability without requiring lateral degrees of freedom on the legs. The "lightning-bolt" shape of the legs with a high knee and a long foot, evolved not out of bio-mimicry, but out of a need to make a leg that could extend and retract, handle the impacts of walking and be intuitive to operate. The scale, although it may seem extreme, came out of functional requirements. You put a six foot person, with a full body exo-skeletal interface, in a machine with a roll cage and impact abortion system and you quickly arrive at three meter legs and a height of five meters. With the gross architecture established, the next step was to focus in on the details and the engineering.

Image credit: Jonathan Tippett

Something as ambitious as Prosthesis takes a lot of resources to complete. How do you break its construction down over time and between different teammates? How do you find people to get involved with the project?

Prosthesis has been taking shape for six years, but only in the last three years was it ready to form a team around and split up in to sub-projects. I began by figuring out what questions needed to be answered, like, what does the suspension for a 3500kg walking machine need to do? Or, what is the most efficient hydraulic system to actuate a giant knee, or swing a 250kg leg? Once a problem reached a manageable size, it could be tackled by a smaller group.

Photo credit: Jonathan Tippett

Prosthesis is a 100% volunteer powered project. There is a core team formed from friends that I've worked on other projects with, most of which were also sponsored by eatART. I have run welding and fabrication classes for the team and we work together to solve problems. I have also created multiple student engineering projects over the last three years, offering resources and mentorship to Engineering students from my Alma mater, The University of British Columbia, in exchange for the skills of their students. The exchange of ideas and effort is rewarding to everyone and we all get to be part of a greater project. This project would be completely impossible with out this team of volunteers.

What are the engineering challenges that you're taking on with this project that's different from your previous work?

[In term of] my previous artwork, there are lots of transferable skills from previous work. In particular, I designed and built the legs of the Mondo Spider with a small team of volunteers. I learned a lot about what works and what doesn't for the legs of a giant walking machine. I also developed and built the electro-hydaulic power train, along with several other engineers, which I plan to take to the next level on Prosthesis. The biggest challenge with Prosthesis is the scale. Both the physical scale, which requires the development of a new intuition, and project scale, which requires a new level of team building and project management.

Where are you finding resources and funding for Prosthesis? How far along is the project, and what are its next big milestones?

As I mentioned, the most important resource that makes the project possible is the team of volunteers. Having a devoted group of people who are willing to do the thousands of hours of work required, purely based on a shared passion and vision, allows me to accomplish an incredible amount of development with the very limited funds. The project has been funded mostly by myself but was made possible by a huge amount of support from my sponsors, and partners. eatART provides the space, UBC provides a lot of talent and support and key sponsors like Beakerhead, Teleflex Canada, Schaeffler Canada and many other industry sponsors provide funding and materials. I would appreciate if you linked to my sponsors page here.

Image Credit: Jonathan Tippett

Thanks to Jonathan for his insight into these incredible machines, and for providing the photos and renders. You can find out more about Prosthesis at its homepage. Correction: Added Leigh Christie and Charlie Brinson as additional co-founders of eatART.