While it has been a quiet month on my YouTube channel and blog, I have been busy in the AT Skunk Works labs on a top secret project. Now that it is finished let me throw the first stone in the AT Arms Race. 🙂
As you may have read in a recent post, I am exploring ideas to help J participate more fully in Challenger Baseball games by modifying a switch adapted pitching machine to help J throw the ball while fielding. That project of mine received some attention from another parent who was looking for a way to help their child play fetch with their service dog. Their child happens to have Cerebral Palsy, happens to use a wheelchair, and happens to need a little help throwing the ball. A very similar situation to my desire to help J participate in the fielding half of the inning during baseball games. Continue reading
This is the third post in a series describing assistive tech and adaptations related to J’s first season of Challenger League Baseball. First, I adapted a baseball glove for J to wear in the field. Then I adapted a ball cap for J to wear with J’s headrest. Today I want to share my first attempt at helping J further participate in the field.
As you may remember, J’s favorite part of baseball is batting. In fact, J’s favorite position is Designated Hitter (it’s a good thing we got on the Blue Jays, an American League team ). I believe part of the reason that J is not too fond of fielding has to do with what fielding entails from J’s point of view.
When we head out to the field, I help J put on her adapted a baseball glove and then wheel out our spot at second base with J’s friends. We get ready for the other team to bat. Any time a ball is hit, we either charge the ball, backup first base, or cover second base depending on the situation. For J, the running can be fun but if the play involves the ball coming to us it really means that dad catches and then helps J throw the ball. Not a lot of independence there.
I started to think of ways to increase J’s direct participation in the field. My first thoughts were around helping J throw the ball. I imagined a scenario where we would charge a ground ball. I would field the ball, load it into something, J would activate that something, and the ball would be thrown/shot/flung/whatever across the field to a teammate. Now that might increase J’s interest in fielding.
Again going with my first thought, I started to imagine a switch adapted pitching machine. After all, pitching machines already exist and are designed to throw a baseball. I thought someone must have already switch adapted one. Then I remembered an internet video I saw somewhere. It was taken by a dad, and showed his two sons. One was pitching batting practice to his brother. The brother pitching happened to have Cerebral Palsy and was using, you guessed it, a switch adapted pitching machine. I knew I was on the right track.
I did a quick Bing search for “switch adapted pitching machine”. Among the hits were a patent for exactly what I was looking, and a “Wireless Pitching Machine” from Enabling Devices.
Wireless Pitching Machine from Enabling Devices
It looked promising, so I ran the idea past AT Mom, got approval( ), and made the purchase. I then waited and watched the front porch for what seemed like 5 – 7 business days. When it arrived, I tore into the box, did some finishing assembly (Enabling Devices does most of the assembly for you), and scoured the house for the needed batteries.
Enabling Device’s Wireless Pitching Machine with J’s switch connected.
I was glad to see that the pitching machine came with both the wireless controller (which has a switch port) and a direct switch port to the machine itself. I like plugging J’s switch directly into the what it is going to control. I feel it makes it more obvious to J: “press this switch and that thing it is connected to will do something.”
I turned on the pitching machine, loaded the three foam balls that came with it, and pressed the pitch button. I could hear the flywheel spin into action. WWWWWWHHHHHRRRRRRRR!!!!!!! Then out came the first ball – thup! I caught it and started to see J using this on the ball field when all of a sudden – thup! A second ball flew at me. Followed by – thup! The third ball flew through the air towards me. Well, that was my first hiccup.
It turns out that the Fisher-Price pitching machine that Enabling Devices adapted was intended to be used as a batting practice trainer. Of course that makes sense. Kid presses the button, grabs the bat, and gets three pitches to hit – thup, thup, thup! Still it was not what I was hoping for as an AT solution for helping J throw the ball while fielding.
I thought, “no big deal, just load one ball and after it throws that one it will just spin and not throw anything else.” But like I said, that was just the first hiccup.
J about to throw a few balls AT Dad’s way.
The next thing I did was grab one of J’s Challenger League baseballs. They may be a touch smaller than a traditional baseball (or about the same size), but they are much softer (in case anyone gets hit by one). I loaded it into the machine, hit the button, and ……… nothing. The weight of the baseball was too much for the loader mechanism and the ball was jamming the flywheel. I pushed it through with my bare hands. Hmmmm….
Then I got the idea to start the flywheel before loading the baseball. I pressed the button, the flywheel whirred up to speed, I dropped the ball into the loading tube, and ……… flup. The ball sputtered out onto the floor after a two foot flight with an apex of about 6 inches above the ground. Not exactly throwing anyone out from second with that. Hmmmm….
Then I got the idea to use a tennis ball. Challenger Baseball is a wonderfully accommodating environment. They use whatever type of ball a batter needs to be able to make contact. Bright balls that are easier to see. Softballs that are easier to hit. Racquetballs that fly off the bat a bit further. Why not change the ball in the field to accommodate a player’s throwing ability?
I acquired a pack of tennis balls and loaded one into the machine and knew we had a problem. The smaller size of the tennis ball and the additional weight (when compared to the foam balls that came with the machine) meant the tennis ball fell right past the loader mechanism into the bottom of the machine. I turned the thing upside down and extracted the tennis ball. Hmmmm….
What about starting the flywheel first again? I pressed the button, the flywheel whirred up to speed, I dropped the tennis ball into the loading tube, and ……… flup. The tennis ball sputtered out onto the floor after a three foot flight with an apex of about 8 inches above the ground. Better but still not throwing anyone out at first. Hmmmm….
What about the foam balls that came with the machine? I loaded up the three balls to see how far they flew, hit the button, heard the flywheel whirr up to speed, then THUP! then THUP! then THUP! All three flew between 9 and 9-1/2 feet with an apex of about 24 – 28 inches. All of those measurements were on the flattest trajectory setting (there are three trajectory angles) and with the machine sitting on the floor. Increasing the trajectory angle shortened the distance and increased the apex of the ball flight, as expected.
Well it looks like this idea was a bust for helping J participate further in the fielding aspect of baseball. However, it has become a very fun activity to play catch with daddy. I bring the machine out on the back deck and place it on our table or we go in the front yard and I place it on a deck chair. I load all three foam balls and let J decide when to press the switch. I then go crazy trying to catch all three balls. There are times I miss one or two and have to go chase it across the deck/yard. There are other times I attempt crazy diving catches because I was “caught out of position”. J also likes to catch me when my guard is down – activating the switch after I turn my back or go for a drink of water.
Hey dad, catch!
I haven’t given up yet though. The next step is a bit more advanced. I am just waiting for the right time try some voltage modifications on the machine. I am hoping that increasing the voltage provided to the motor will increase the flywheel speed which will result in further throwing distances. Just don’t tell AT Mom before I can get a chance to try.
Awhile back J took an interest in science and, specifically, “star gazing”. AT Mom responded with an amazing art project that resulted in glow in the dark stars (arranged in real constellations) and 3-D glow in the dark planets hanging above J’s bed. (It really is a cool project.) AT Dad, on the other hand, responded by rewiring the launch controller for a model rocket to be switch activated.
NOTE: Since the launch controller includes safety mechanisms to prevent unintended launches and rewiring the controller needs to be done in a way to not bypass these safety mechanisms, I will not be describing how to rewire the controller. Consider this post as inspiration for what can be switch adapted. If you have the technical knowledge of circuitry the rewiring is not difficult; however, it is easy to get wrong resulting in unintended launches. (Which you will find out happened to me this initial attempt.)
This is an AT project that was stretched over a number of weeks. Most of that time was just waiting for the time to build the model rocket together and then waiting for a good launch opportunity. (Our first two planned launches were cancelled due to rain.)
The project started with a trip to the local hobby store. J and I went up and down the aisles looking for a science related project for home. I would take something off the shelf (take a quick look to make sure I had an idea of how J would participate) and then ask J if it was something J wanted to try. We tried various science kits (solar car, potato clock, etc.), electric trains (which I was hoping for since I had some cool ideas for connecting a train set to J’s eye gaze system), and a few others. Finally, I offered a model rocket and J’s face lit up. We had our science project!
Before purchasing the kit I talked with the guy at the hobby store. He gave me some great ideas about launch locations and informed me about local model rocket clubs / associations. I asked about switch adapting the launch controller. I got the response I expected, a confused look followed by something like “that sounds cool.” Since the launcher worked by pressing a button I was highly confident I could put a switch connector in parallel to the button, so we bought the kit and headed home.
A few weeks passed, ever so often I would take out the model rocket kit and imagine J pressing a switch to launch the rocket. I got some time to focus on the launch controller and began to take it apart. I actually had to get out the Dremel and cut away some of the plastic to get at the circuitry. It took a little finesse but I got the launcher working the way I thought it should (I was not going to connect it to an engine until launch day).
Later that week J and I found some time to actually construct the Taser model rocket. J helped me follow the directions and showed me with eye pointing where the different parts went together. When the rocket and launch pad were fully constructed (and all glue was dried), J and I set it up on the floor and simulated a few launches (AT Dad lifting the rocket up the launch post).
A few more weeks passed, every so often J and I would excitedly simulate a couple of launches in the house. We planned on a Friday afternoon launch, but were foiled by a summer rain. Not big rain, but enough to make me pull the launch for that day. I told J we were official rocket scientists now because we had a launch scrubbed by weather.
We rescheduled the launch for the following Friday afternoon. But a week later we were foiled by another light rain. So another couple of weeks needed to pass before our next launch window.
Then came a beautiful Thursday afternoon (I wasn’t going to tempt another Friday afternoon ). J, J’s Papa, and I headed out to a local sports field complex for the launch. I set up the launch pad, inserted the engine into the rocket, slid it onto the launch pad, connected the launch controller to the rocket, connected J’s switch to the launch controller, inserted and depressed the safety key (arming the launch controller), told J to press the switch when ready, J pressed the switch, and ….
I removed the safety key and disconnected J’s switch from the launch controller. Checking everything I found one of the alligator clips had disconnected from the rocket engine. I reconnected the alligator clip, reconnected J’s switch, inserted and depressed the safety key (arming the launch controller), told J to press the switch when ready, J pressed the switch, and ….
I removed the safety key and disconnected J’s switch from the launch controller. Checking everything I found that the primer was broken so it could not start the engine. I inserted a new primer into the engine, reconnected the alligator clip, reconnected J’s switch, inserted and depressed the safety key (arming the launch controller), FFFFFFFFFFFFFISSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSHHHHHHHH!
The rocket launched when I pressed the safety key. This should have only armed the launch controller. We watched the rocket fly a couple hundred feet up before deploying its parachute and floating back to the ground. I turned and asked J if that was neat and did J see the rocket. Then I turned my attention to the launch controller. I deduced that in my rewiring of the controller I unintentionally created a short that fully closed the circuit when depressing the safety key.
We had one more primer and two more engines, so we could do one more launch. I retrieved the rocket, repacked the parachute, inserted the engine into the rocket, slid it onto the launch pad, connected the launch controller to the rocket, connected J’s switch to the launch controller, inserted the safety key (but did not depress it yet), told J to press the switch when ready, J pressed the switch (and I depressed the safety key at the same time), and ….
A second successful launch! I asked J how J liked the rocket. J smiled. I learned a couple of things that I will change for next time (and there will be a next time). First, I need to get another launch controller and do a better job of rewiring it. If I cannot do a better job of rewiring an existing controller, I will have to construct my own from scratch. Second, prior to launch I will tilt J’s chair back to full tilt – making it easier for J to watch the rocket fly above us. Third, for the class of engine I used I now know I can get away with a launch area of two soccer fields wide (given a relatively calm wind).
When I do have a follow up launch, I will make sure to share the details of that experience and provide select details from my (hopefully) successful adaptation of a rocket launch controller.