- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Here’s a look at some hardware and software that’s available:

Edge Hovercraft by Team Edge, stand-alone unit that includes battery and charger. Additional 9-volt battery required; suitable for ages 8 and older; $99.99. One of the stranger radio-controlled vehicles I have seen lately gives users the chance to maneuver a fairly complicated amphibious technical marvel that has been used by British travelers for 40 years.

Team Edge’s 1:10 scale hovercraft looks exactly like its larger brethren but with a cooler paint job. It uses a three-motor configuration to skim over any smooth surface, including water, ice and wood floors. A centrifugal air compressor mounted at midships inflates the rubber bumper around the craft and releases a thin cushion of air to seal it with the surface and move it millimeters off the ground.

Twin air-cage fans at its rear sport two propellers that provide thrust and directional control as the driver operates a three-channel radio-control system with an effective transmitting range of 100 feet. To conserve power, the twin stick transmitter has a “kill” button mounted on it to shut down the main compressor and deflate the air bag.

The Hovercraft works as advertised, but two problems might make it not the best choice for junior’s first venture into the world of RC vehicles.

First, the craft sucks up an enormous amount of power, limiting its effectiveness to about 10 minutes per charge. A 9.6-volt NiCd battery pack handles the chore and takes four hours to recharge.

Second, it looks pretty and performs well, but it cannot compete for attention against traditional RC cars that can perform dizzying stunts, explode into pieces and take a major beating. I would worry about the possibility of puncturing the rubber skirt when letting the 8-year-old crowd get hold of this pricey item.

However, adult hobbyists looking to race friends or parents who want to demonstrate a few principles of physics and mechanical engineering in a unique way will find the Hovercraft a worthy option.

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Formula Fuelers by Mattel; stand-alone unit requires three AA batteries; $19.99. If only the United States could harness the technology of the latest Hot Wheels line, Americans could rely on pickle juice for fuel rather than OPEC oil.

In this fantastically interactive product, children 8 years old and older become chemical engineers as they attempt to mix a formula using safe household liquids that will propel a prototype vehicle as efficiently and quickly as possible.

The 8-inch-long Formula Fueler resembles a rally-racing Mitsubishi and has a capped fuel-tank vial containing the original mixture. The vial must be placed into a slot in the rear to make the vehicle move. Make a poor fuel choice, and the car sputters along with accompanying movement and sound effects. Find the perfect energy mixture, and the vehicle revs its engine and travels about 50 feet.

The Formula Fuelers kit comes with a mixing container, mixers, pump, three types of Nitrox2 enhancers (for those who run out of original fuel ideas) and a gauge to check blends before testing them on the vehicle. After the tips of the gauge are placed into the concoction, a five-beep scale meters its effectiveness: one beep for poor and five beeps with a horn for perfection.

During my initial tests, I tried everything from tap water to lime seltzer to fruit punch to concentrated grapefruit juice to see how the vehicle reacted. A mixture of 50 percent grape juice and 50 percent iced tea shot the vehicle about 25 feet, while equal parts of cream soda and lemon juice with six drops of soy sauce almost put a hole in my living room wall.

Mark Trageser, staff designer at Hot Wheels, would not divulge all the scientific magic behind the product but did say it has something to do with conductivity. He says liquids containing saline or acids and those that are ionized are more conductive than others.

I call it Hot Wheels’ tech permutation of the “make a battery out of a lemon” experiment.

No matter; this remarkable product will entrance youngsters as they raid refrigerators and store shelves looking for the perfect energy source. It also offers a wonderful bonding experience for dad and son as they use a classic toy franchise to explore the world of chemical reactions.

Write to Joseph Szadkowski, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20002; or send e-mail (jszadkowski@washingtontimes.com).

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