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 V.17 No.35 | August 28 - September 3, 2008 

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Home Tech Heads

Idea Propulsion Lab members invent from the comfort of their living rooms

Matt Grommes looks through a magnifier at a power supply for prototype circuits.
Eric Williams
Matt Grommes looks through a magnifier at a power supply for prototype circuits.

Necessity may spur invention, but for Matt Grommes, creativity is the driving factor behind his creations. The members of the Idea Propulsion Lab (IPL) don't need engineering degrees to go mad scientist. And while these garage engineers aren't reeling in millions with their inventions, they probably have the highest-tech stereo systems and the best solar-powered fighting robots in town.

Grommes, originator of the Idea Propulsion Lab, is a computer programmer at New Mexico Mutual and spends his spare time tinkering with electronics. Grommes wondered if there were others as passionate about complex technological toys as he.

A mouse called Herbie the Junkbot built by Matt Grommes a couple months ago. Herbie moves toward light, and when  sit bumps into things, the robot backs up and goes in a different direction.
Eric Williams
A mouse called Herbie the Junkbot built by Matt Grommes a couple months ago. Herbie moves toward light, and when sit bumps into things, the robot backs up and goes in a different direction.

So he tossed out a lure earlier this year to see if anyone in Albuquerque would bite at the idea of a social organization hospitable to tech heads. A few months and 40 members later, the club continues to grow. "The word spread around, and it took on a life of its own," Grommes says.

Anyone can be an engineer so long as they have the desire to dabble in the vast realm of technology. Aaron Birenboim, one of the creative members of the IPL, says far too many people are merely technology consumers. "We need to keep in mind that technology is so widespread not because a few wizards in their labs are creating devices in large numbers," Birenboim says, "but because the tools to make these devices are getting simpler, cheaper and easier to use for us all."

The tools to make these devices are getting simpler, cheaper and easier to use for us all.

Aaron Birenboim

The young club is a place for local inventors to parade their skills while learning from others. Through in-person group meetings and an online forum that looks like a MySpace for engineers, the lab also provides a venue for amateur scientists to pursue ideas and casually brainstorm ways to solve problems. The IPL allows members enough freedom to take on whatever technological invention they desire.

The wiring for a battle bot on Aaron Birenboim’s workbench.
Eric Williams
The wiring for a battle bot on Aaron Birenboim’s workbench.

Ed Heron, a devout IPL member, is using a golf cart battery and old-school tech to convert a gas-powered Volkswagen Rabbit into an electric car. Heron says he hopes electric cars will become a viable option for many citizens. "It's kind of like Pirates of the Caribbean," Heron says, "when Captain Jack Sparrow says, Yes, a ship is a vessel with a keel and sails, but what a ship really is, is freedom.” While not many are seeking freedom to pillage and plunder, Heron refers to freedom from high gas prices while still being able to drive your own car.

The strong engineering and computer science programs at the University of New Mexico and the presence of Sandia National Labs and Kirtland Air Force Base all breed an intense focus on technology in Albuquerque, say both Birenboim and Grommes. Do-it-yourself projects are picking up steam everywhere, but Grommes says Albuquerque has a large population of people with plenty of brainpower who are interested in these types of inventions.

As the inventions and the group continue to develop, there is talk of renting a “Hacker Space” in the future. The rented workshop ideally would be large enough to harbor both the projects and the inventors, so members could work outside of their own garage or living room. Hacker Spaces are opening across the country with a couple in Manhattan and one in Washington, D.C. There is also hope of holding classes for more in-depth cooperative teaching and learning among members.

“I’d love to see us become a ‘recommended’ extracurricular activity for technically oriented people, like trade students at CNM or engineering students at UNM,” Birenboim says.

When asked about the role technology plays in society today, Birenboim was taken aback. "Role? No real role," he says. "It seems that technology is the core of society today. It is everywhere."

 

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