UCSB Engineering Students Design ‘Rally Rig’ to Break Physical Limitations in Filmmaking

Image Courtesy of Rally Rig

Xander Apicella
Science and Tech Editor

The Rally Rig is a mechanical engineering (ME) capstone project designed to help those with impaired motor function be filmmakers by operating a camera in ways their physical limitations prevent.

Last week, the Rally Rig was showcased at the REEL LOUD Film and Arts Festival. Its team went home with a 1,500 dollar check to continue working on its vision so people everywhere, regardless of physical abilities, can work in cinema.

An article by The UC Santa Barbara Current details the formation of this project in the mind of its visionary and first tester — D’Vonte Johnson. A film and media arts major at UCSB, Johnson pursued filmmaking from a young age, but his cerebral palsy had put a barrier between him and his dream. A chance encounter with a mechanical engineering graduate student got Johnson connected with the UCSB Engineering Capstone Program.

When a team — composed of interested, fourth-year engineering undergraduates — picks up a Capstone, they work on it for a full year and present it at an end-of-the-year expo (this year’s is next Friday). The majority of these projects consist of the teams building prototypes for a tech company — places like FLIR, Sonos, and Raytheon — but projects like the Rally Rig are sometimes made.

Five mechanical engineering students — Andy Cai, Andrew Lederman, Max Mercurio, Amanda Singleton, and Jacob Smith — heard of the Rally Rig project and wanted to work on it. The team met with The Bottom Line for an interview this past week.

When D’Vonte got the news, he was ecstatic. “I was like, ‘Oh snap, that’s awesome,’” he said. “Then I met Amanda and … the rest is history.”

“I thought it was a good opportunity to make a dream come true,” Amanda said.

“I like that it was more personal than the … industry based projects,” Andrew said. “It really is a one of a kind project … you don’t get projects like this very often.”

Such a unique project comes with its challenges, however. Working to help D’Vonte, rather than creating a product to be sold, meant that they were not getting the typical industry funding that goes into a capstone — which the team estimated at about 5,000 dollars, at least — or guidance from industry engineers. UCSB engineering faculty helped them with their technical questions, but money was still a large problem.

D’Vonte came to them with 3,000 dollars out of pocket, but even that wasn’t enough to cover the rig and the camera equipment they were mounting. So, they started a kickstarter for the project, which is at nearly 8,000 dollars today.

On the site you can see their early prototypes dominated by large arms of PVC pipe and a rigid structure. The current model has come a long way, swapping the clunky plastic boom for a sleek, maneuverable metal arm bearing a small but powerful camera. The configuration was something D’Vonte had thought about for a while.

“The inspiration comes from how I get around on a daily basis, by joystick,” D’Vonte said. “I figured I should devise something that comes second nature to me.”

To work toward this vision, the Rally Rig is controlled the way his wheelchair is. His motion is directed by a control box on his chair’s right arm, so they imitated this configuration on his left side to make a box that controlled the camera.

The aesthetic is simple, but some of the design features are rather complex. They spoke of the components and mechanics of the apparatus with the efficiency of those who had done so many times before.  

They used aluminum framing from 80/20 Inc., a company which specializes in making durable, lightweight parts that can be configured in a diverse array of ways — not unlike Legos for practical engineering. This framing gives them deft control over prototyping, allowing them to modify the rig and test new ideas at will. If they don’t like something, they can replace it, and if they want to add something new, it’s simple to do so.

The light framing also kept the wheelchair from being weighed down by the rig, so as to not inhibit the chair’s functions.

To move the camera up and down they have it on a linear actuator; a vertical electric piston-like mechanism. They attached this to a cantilever arm to give the camera a side-to-side sweeping motion as well.

Camera stabilization was the final step. To make it work, they used a consumer-grade active gimbal system. Gimbals are systems that allow for the three types of rotational motion — up and down; side to side; back and forth — without altering a camera’s position. It stays level with the horizon, allowing it to move without producing shaky or disjointed shots.

The team’s gimbal came as a handheld model, so they modified it to work with the rig’s metal arm, then designed circuit boards (PCBs) and wired them to interface with the controls on D’Vonte’s chair. They also made sure the hardware accounted for safety. If the rig’s arm senses something beneath it, it stops (to avoid pinching), and there is also a stop switch for emergencies.

They envisioned functions beyond filming, too. They anticipated they could use a similar rig to get objects off of high shelves, or do other creative activities, like painting.

Before any of that, they intend to finish the Rally Rig to their satisfaction. They’re still working on some quality of life updates for the rig — they want to make sure D’Vonte can attach and operate the rig without issues and that there’s a concise and readable user manual so, when they’re gone, the rig’s parts can be replaced or tuned without issue.

One of the most important aspects of this project, the team believes, is that it’s understood that the Rally Rig is not a medical device. It’s not focused on keeping someone alive — its focused on letting them live the way they want to live, to do what they want to do. They are allowing someone to be who they are, taking down the barriers chance has placed against them, and they are inspiring their community in the process.

The team spoke of other other examples of life-changing projects like LegTrek — another UCSB engineering capstone giving Sophia, a seventh grade girl with cerebral palsy, the ability to walk — and the Xbox adaptive controller, which was built so those with impaired motor functions could find a way to play. These devices are statements that, with the help of others, people can overcome formidable obstacles and be who they want to be.

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Xander started at TBL as an S&T staff writer in his junior year at UCSB and then the S&T Editor in his senior year (2019-2020). He enjoyed himself most interviewing researchers on projects they were excited about and writing accessible pieces that captured those conversations. He is moving on to work as an engineer in the industry but hopes to continue communicating science through his writing. He climbs, reads, and writes in his free time. Although he plans to stay in CA, he hopes to seek out some snow every once in a while.