NTU’s maiden Chingay parade float to be an engineering marvel
Melding art and technology, Nanyang Technological University (NTU) will make its first foray into Singapore’s annual Chingay parade with an impressive trio of dragons – one of the tallest floats ever to appear in a Chingay Parade.
The float, featuring three animated dragons crossing a sea of illuminated waves and with one of the dragon heads reaching a height of eight metres*, promises to be a feat of engineering at Singapore’s Chingay Parade 2009, to be organised by the People’s Association on 30 and 31 January 2009. (*Afternote: Upon completion, the height of nine metres was achieved, making NTU's float the tallest float at the Chingay Parade.)
"We were excited by the invitation to participate because the Chingay Parade offers the perfect opportunity to blend art and technology, two strengths of the University," says Prof Er Meng Hwa, NTU’s Senior Associate Provost. The project fuses talents from different domains and disciplines at NTU, including the School of Art, Design and Media (ADM), School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, School of Computer Engineering and the Cultural Activities Club, an NTU students’ club.
He adds, "The design blends Chingay traditions with engineering principles and raises the bar in bringing together art and technology. The design envisaged by our Creative Director for the project, Prof Isaac Kerlow from NTU’s ADM, incorporates robotic characters that could move and perform alongside live dancers.” Fourth-year students from the Bachelor of Fine Arts programme at NTU’s ADM were asked to participate in the concept development process. They were given exposure to interdisciplinary collaboration and learnt how to propose artistic solutions that can be implemented.
Art and technology in a feat of engineering
The float depicts a large, nine-metre-tall dragon and two smaller dragons that can reach a height of five metres. Each dragon has an internal aluminium structure operated by a mix of hydraulic and pneumatic power. The motions of the structure are controlled by a mechatronic (mechanical robotic) system designed by a team of NTU Engineering professors. Says Prof Er, “Prof Gerald Seet Gim Lee, Technical Director for the project and Head-Mechatronics and Design at the School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, and his team of engineers had a challenging task on-hand. Building an automated dragon head with a height of eight metres is an engineering feat in itself. Imagine an eight-metre-long robotic dragon without tresses or other forms of structural support, using only hydraulic power to support its weight and to move its head in various directions.”
He adds: “As our dragon is taller than Singapore’s ERP gantry when it is in an upright position, the Professors had to make sure it could bend to safely cross the gantry.”
Giving a sense of the enormity of the challenge, Prof Er elaborates, "It’s akin to building the San Francisco suspension bridge. Thanks to the sheer size and weight of the dragon head, about 15 joints are needed to hold it together, yet allowing it to move. However, with 15 joints, it means more synchronisation is needed as each point of the joint is a potential weak point in the whole structure." The robotic system uses a combination of standard technology and custom programming to produce the motions. (Refer to Annex A for more details on the NTU Chingay 2009 float.)
The wave structure that the dragons rest on draws on moving light to simulate the actual effect of waves. The “moving waves” tap a unique “green” solution incorporating a light refraction system designed by Assoc Prof Goh Wooi Boon and Assoc Prof Quek Hiok Chai from the School of Computer Engineering. Prof Er reveals, "Many will be surprised to know that we managed to create the lighting effect producing the spectacular wave illusions using simple recycled materials such as water bottles, coloured water, and simple rotating motors with unbalanced loads. As with many effective engineering solutions, the simplicity often hides many hours of tireless experimentation.”
Prototypes of the float were developed as part of the overall development process. These prototypes helped the team members understand the design issues, the strengths of their technology, and the fabrication process. For example, the mechanised computer-controlled prototype of one dragon neck helped the team fine-tune issues and solve structural and performance challenges.
A dance of joy
Some 120 students from NTU which includes students from the National Institute of Education will perform and dance with the dragon float.
Giving a hint of the mythical grandeur to come, Mr Anthony Teo, NTU’s Secretary to the University and Chairman of the NTU Chingay committee, says: “We hope the crowd will enjoy the spectacle of a fire-spitting dragon, lively dances and enthralling light effects enveloped by a cloud of mist from the dragon.”
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