UFO: A close encounter of the flashing light kind

There has not been much interest in UFOs lately – at least not around here. There seemed to be a lot more interest back in the ‘70s. Our school book club even had an Usborne book on UFOs for sale that I loved. There was also a TV series called Project UFO which was based on the Air Force Project Blue Book that investigated UFO reports between 1947 and 1969. My friend and I tried taking our own fake UFO photographs – not to fool people, but just for fun. All the best photos in books were fuzzy and out of focus and that was something we could duplicate.

Not a UFO hovering over nearby houses

Not a UFO. It’s just a part of an egg cooker stuck to a window. The fuzzy effects are not due to instagram. This was how all my photos turned out.

A close encounter

In the late ‘70s when I was a teenager I was a passenger in the back of our family car returning home one Sunday night along the New England Highway with my parents. Even though the road is a highway it is not a particular busy one and there were just the usual few cars about that night. It was a dark night and there was a lot of cloud about. There were a few cars in front of us travelling behind a truck that was bout 500m in front of us and a few more cars behind us. We noticed a bright blue flashing light coming towards us and it seemed to hover just above the truck. The truck and all the cars behind pulled off the side of the road. We continued up to it and pulled in behind. Everyone stayed in their cars and watched the flashing light move up into the clouds. The flashing lit up the clouds and then it travelled east out of sight. Everyone started their cars and drove off.

A view along the highway where the incident occured

The stretch of road where the incident occurred. The group of trees on the right mark the entrance to the CSIRO government research centre.

I don’t claim it was a UFO. It could have been a plane as there is an airport about 10km further ahead. It was odd that the only light was white. Normally planes have red and green lights as well. Also we did not hear a noise. All aircraft using that airport in those days were propeller aircraft and normally the drone of an engine could be heard. Nearby is a CSIRO government research facility, but as they were only doing research on farming and land care I doubt if it was involved.

What impresses me most now is that a line of cars that all stopped to watch it, which indicates that it must have been unusual enough for the drivers to stop.

I have difficulty believing UFOs exist, but I do love the idea that they could; that there is another life form that drops in every now and then to see what we are up to.

A detector

I remained interested in UFOs and one day I found a magazine in our school library that contained plans to build a UFO detector, called the “Official UFO Model BJ UFO Detector”. The plans were fascinating. It seems the detector was based on the premise that UFOs create magnetic interference. Apparently many people that have witnessed UFO sightings have noticed compasses spinning and that sort of thing. I never built it as it was beyond my abilities and used components that were not easy to source in Australia.

Years later I built a detector based on a compass to give a warning when the compass needle moved. I wasn’t really expecting to detect a UFO, rather I was interested to see if a compass needle ever deviates and what may cause it. So far I have not detected anything unusual. That project will be the subject of a later post.

Wind art: A simple piece using an old bicycle wheel

I tried building a few pieces of wind art. The most successful creation was one of the simplest to build. This was my first attempt at using a bicycle part. It was quite quick to make – perhaps a couple of hours.

The bicycle wheel wind vane mounted on a pole

I cut a bunch of identical rhomboid shaped pieces of galvanised iron sheeting to wrap around the spokes to catch the breeze and make it spin. There is a slight bend in each to make them fit the spokes as the adjacent sides of each piece wrap around are not parallel. I thought I would have to use some additional fasteners to hold them in place but simply tapping the folds down with a hammer has been enough to keep them tight for over 10 years during some pretty strong winds.

Metal sheet folded over the spokes to create blades

I used an old hardwood garden stake to fasten everything on to. I used a metal tube on an earlier one I built with an old desk fan blade and it was quite noisy and swapping to timber made it quieter, so I went with that again for this one. I’m not sure I would do the same again. If I did use timber I would use thicker timber. Although this Australian hardwood is quite tough for size. Notice the lichen that is growing naturally on it. The tail is just another piece of galvanised iron sheet.

A closeup of the tail

I made a bracket out of a short piece of angle iron. Two bolts hold it on to the timber.

the angle iron bracket that is used to mount the wheel to the timber

The pivot point is quite basic. I don’t think I would use this method again even though it has worked quite well. I cut two pieces of steel that were the same width as the timber and drilled three holes through the steel and the timber. The timber is sandwiched between the two pieces of steel and held in place with two bolts through the outside holes. Grease was pushed into the centre hole. It turns on a bolt which rubs on the steel plates as the timber would wear out quickly without the steel. The whole thing mounts on a bolt that is fitted through a hole drilled in the end of a pipe end cap.

The pivot point reinforced with metal plates

Every couple of years I top up the grease on the pivot point and clean and re-grease the wheel bearings. This keeps it running quietly.

Raspberry Pi: I managed to get one of these new cheap computers

Last week I bought one of those new Raspberry Pi computers. It is a small single-board computer about the size of a deck of playing cards. It was developed in the UK by the Raspberry Pi Foundation with the intention of making a cheap computer to be used in schools for teaching about computers as opposed to teaching about Word, Excel and other applications.

A view of the Raspberry Pi computer from above

The Raspberry Pi

There are two main versions. The one I got (and I think the most popular) is the slightly more expensive Model-B which I bought in Australia for about $38.00 (without SD card). While it doesn’t look like it could do much it has a 700MHz ARM processor with 512MB inbuilt RAM (like those used in some mobile phones), 2 x USB ports, composite video output, HDMI output, a 3.5mm audio output, a SD card slot, an Ethernet socket and a micro USB socket used to connect a 5v power supply. It can run Linux (I have a version designed for it called Raspbian) which is installed on a SD card. All that’s needed to start off is a keyboard, mouse and screen (a TV will do) and a connection to the internet (I use a USB wireless network card). The other thing it has of interest is a GPIO (General Purpose Input Output) header that lets you connect sensors and other things.

The Raspberry Pi with retail box and separate SD card

Here it is with the retail packaging. The SD card was purchased separately.

The first thing that stood out is the box. It looks like a box of tablets. I opened it up and removed the small circuit board and spent the next 15 minutes admiring it and passing on all the “interesting” facts I knew about it to my wife until I thought she could take no more. The next day when I had more time I inserted the SD card, connected my phone charger as a power supply, a keyboard and wireless mouse and the TV via a HDMI cable and switched it on. Lots of text came up on the screen followed by a prompt for a username and then password. I read the instructions that came with the SD card that I bought on ebay and got the Linux GUI desktop running. I felt like I did when I got my first Commodore 64 computer. I was excited that I could get it to boot and realised that there was so much to learn. Eventually I got an old USB wireless networking stick to connect to our network so I can put that LAN cable away again.

A view of the bottom of the Raspberry with the SD card in its socket

Here’s a shot of the bottom with the SD card inserted

The thing that is perhaps the most exciting other than the value for money it offers is the potential it holds for hobbyists. Already there is a community sharing tips and project ideas. They are cheap… cheap enough that money is not really a reason to avoid using them. Cheap enough that it doesn’t matter if you destroy one and cheap enough that you can buy a few if you want to have several projects going.

So what are my plans? I’m finding the learning curve is a bit steep at the moment and I’m not very confident that I can get very far with it. Initially I want to get it to run as a server and be able to log into it remotely. Next I would like to see if I could connect a sensor or two – maybe a seismic sensor and be able to monitor that remotely. After that I would like data from the sensor to be stored and remotely accessible.