The Electric Giraffe Project
29th March, 2014 by

Basic Design

Based on Tamiya’s little model of a walking giraffe, the Electric Giraffe is a life sized robotic giraffe that borrows this toy’s walking mechanism. The ‘Raffe actually walks, just like its small scaled design model, but towers
at 17 feet tall when its neck is raised. The main frame where people can ride is 8 feet off the ground, providing an impressive viewpoint of the surroundings. Though the beast appears to have wheeled feet, the giraffe actually walks on these wheels. The wheels are used to give it variable traction control, and more importantly, allow it to be winched up onto its trailer. At 1700 pounds, the giraffe is a real handful during this operation.

Power System

The giraffe uses a small 12 horsepower engine burning Propane gas. Propane is a lot safer than gasoline and burns much cleaner, which makes it ok to operate in crowded and even indoor events. The engine has no direct connection to the giraffe other than to spin generators that charge the main system batteries. From there the batteries power a 3 horsepower electric motor that only needs 1.5 horsepower to move the giraffe. Therefore the machine uses a true hybrid fuel-engine-generator-electric motor design.

Drive Train

The main electric motor has no speed control and spins only in one direction. The motor gives its power to a “Hydrostatic Transmission.” A simple lever on this unit is moved forward or back to tell the giraffe which way to walk, providing a continuously variable “analog” speed control. Thus, the engine is not required for the giraffe to power up and start walking. This nearly silent mode of operation for a robotic vehicle lends a unique and wonderful aspect to its motion. Giraffe are naturally silent animals and this quiet mode of operation was part of the design specification from the beginning.

Lighting and Sound

Currently the giraffe has about 500 watts of on board audio power. That is slated to be expanded to at least 2000 watts in the future. Also, the lighting system at this time is rather basic. Future revisions will see computer controlled spots that pulse to the music, and many more lighting and computer systems added. The machine in this area will forever remain in a state of modification, as the look and feel of the giraffe is to change slightly from year to year. This will give people something new to look for at future appearances.

Inspiration and Initial Design

Many people ask this question over and over. WHY? Well, for years I have been coming to Burning Man, dressed up in my zebra costume. Yes, a zebra costume. Anyway, I’ve wanted to build something that went along with that decoration. So I rode around on several art cars during 2002 and 2003. What data I gathered suggested these parameters: It should be tall, because the view one gets at BM from just being 8 feet up is amazing. It should be an animal, since I love animals and like the idea of an animal as a form of decoration. It should play music and be able to carry a small number of people, probably no more than 4 to 6 max.

Almost immediately a giraffe came to mind. I had thought of making a zebra, but, that would be redundant and on top of that, it had been done already. So, the initial design saw the giraffe on a wheeled frame, driving around much like a car. But I wanted the legs and neck to move as well, so I started looking at motion systems for ideas. Initially, the thought of the giraffe actually walking crossed my mind, but was quickly written off as being impossible or at least, very difficult to try. So the giraffe would “walk” but, it would be faked motion, with the hooves barely touching the ground. It was to be very much like a real giraffe skeleton, that walked and moved like a real one would.

Well, along comes this model giraffe from Tamiya. I spotted it while searching information on the net about giraffes. The little thing uses this very simple method of operating all 4 legs at the same time from a single geared motor source. I took the thing to my friend Gary and showed it to him, placing it on the table, and as it walked, I talked about how this motion would look nice on the wheeled frame, imitating a real walking giraffe. Well, Gary shot straight out of his chair and pointed at the thing, saying here was all the design criteria I needed. To borrow the mechanism of this toy and build a full size walking machine!

I was stunned and at first rebelled against the idea, having invested 2 years in solid thought and design with the project, and had a very clear idea of how it would look and operate. But what I was also planning was terribly complex and demanding. It could take years to complete, and here I was, in late 2004 wanting to build a machine for 2005 in august. The prospects were not looking good for this more artistic giraffe I was planning. But the more robotic and stiff looking machine was suddenly looking very possible. After about 4 hours of discussion, Gary and I came to agree that this little model would provide the basis of what was going to become the wildest thing I have ever built so far. And it would really walk!

From there I entered into a world of welding every weekend and spare hour during the week for 10 solid months. We got a 7 year rain cycle that came through, my day job became an utter nightmare due to its own parameters, and I passed through more misery and injuries than ever. Needless to say, I was having the time of my life, spending every dollar I earned on this project, and loving it more and more as the days passed and the machine neared completion. It seemed like everything fate could toss me to trip me up on the project was happening, plus all sorts of help manifested itself at the same time. New friendships were created on many levels, and I remain deeply pleased with what has arisen from a pile of steel so far.

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