Retired city policeman takes refuge among droids
Published: May 1, 2013
The 4-foot tall robot standing sentry next to Mark Haygood’s dining-room table looks like an elaborate toy.
That’s because it is made, in part, from cast-off or repurposed toys, like the Kawasaki tricycle that forms its torso. “I just look for shapes,” Haygood says, producing an identical trike for comparison.
The head is a clock radio, its speakers where a man’s ears would be, its camera eye concealed behind the smoked plastic lens of a CD loader. There are Simpson Strong-Ties—a home-builder’s friend—at many joints; photographer’s tripod heads at others; chicken fryers for feet; and everywhere, servos—23 of the small electric motors with big gears that make the robot’s head and arms and hands and fingers move at his command, and that can almost make it walk.
“This is Hex,” Haygood says. A sign on the wall above Hex’s head reads “Imagine,” and that is what Haygood has been doing since he was a child. “When I was a kid, my mom would buy me toys; I would dissect them immediately,” says Haygood. “I’d try to make something bigger.”
Mark Haygood is a retired city cop who dropped out of high school and is “afraid of math.” He made Hex in his spare time with found parts, engineering as he went, learning from his mistakes. He wants to take Hex to city high schools and teach kids how to make a robot like it, only better. He would like to raise money for this, maybe on Kickstarter. And he wants to find someone in Baltimore’s education system he can work with, to nurture his own interest as well as that of young people, to show them that they, too, can build whatever they dream.
At 49 years old, 6 foot 3, and easily 250 pounds, with a buzz cut, Haygood looks every inch the city cop, though he says police culture left him emotionally drained. “I found a great deal of joy being able to be somewhat humane and compassionate in the street, when possible,” he says.
It wasn’t always: In 1996 Haygood got in a shoot out while off duty.
He had come home from a tough shift, he says. He lived then with his second wife, Faith, on the 1300 block of Hollins Street. He heard a woman screaming, opened his front door, and saw two grown men robbing a woman and “stomping on this kid. Just stomping on him. He looked like he was about 8 years old.”
The robbers got the kid’s backpack and ran. Haygood chased. “I wasn’t thinking,” he says, pondering all the bad things that could have happened. He wasn’t wearing his bulletproof vest. “I was just enraged.”
The guys went around the corner. Haygood ran after them and yelled something like “throw it down, motherfucker.” One of the guys shot at Haygood, who ducked behind the wall and shot back. He hit one. “They limped to their home, on Lexington,” Haygood says. “It’s a long way to limp.”
Other cops followed the trail of blood. The robbers were arrested and got 18 years. Haygood says he never saw them again—“never got a summons to go to court.”
He says the boy, who had a charity coupon from Santa Anonymous—that’s what the robbers were after—told him, “thanks for saving my life, officer.”
“I’m good with that,” says Haygood. But he’s still sure he made a bad decision too. “Two guys in the alley with a bookbag? What am I gonna do?” he says.
Haygood took a year leave of absence in 1999 to work in Bosnia, training police there. He retired from the city force in 2006. These days he works the CitiWatch cameras part-time, so he still gets to see horrors—women dragged into alleys, a man hit by a speeding car. He spends his money on Hex.
Haygood says he started work on Hex shortly after his father died, in 2009. “I can’t explain why, but when he died I just felt like doing what I loved.” The father had been out of Haygood’s life since 1968; “we were not close.” But the death made Haygood concentrate on this one dream, to build a working, walking robot.
“I had no training,” he says. “It was frustrating doing it as a kid, without any money.” Now, with a pension and a job—twice divorced, with no children at home to distract him—he set about realizing this dream.
He does some work at the Hackerspace on Landay Avenue, he says, but the pure theory and advanced math can get in the way of the trial and error it takes to actually get something built, says Haygood. “There’s a guy there with a Ph.D. in robotics,” Haygood says. “Nothing he builds works.”
He pulls up some life-size humanoid robots on his laptop—Hubo, a Korean-designed bot housed at Drexel University; CHARLI, at Virginia Tech. There are only a few, he says, that can actually walk.
“My machine will do all of this from a kinesthetic point of view,” says Haygood. The hips have a pitch and a yaw, but they won’t move out sideways. “It works, but the gait is more like Frankenstein,” he explains, and it’s a little worse than that. The hips are a little too wide, the machine a little off balance, the ankles a little weaker than they should be. “I miscalculated the math,” he says. “That’s probably what kept me out of college as a roboticist. I don’t just hate math. I fear it.”
That a math-phobic high school dropout could build Hex is part of Haygood’s pitch. It’s a throwback to the amateur, fix-anything farmboy ethic of 20th-century America.
Haygood looks for some small electric struts to ease Hex’s leg movement. He finds them online for $400 each. These might solve the issue, he says.
A week later, he’s changed tack.
“It’s one of these minor little problems I’ve just got to walk away from,” Haygood says, looking down at Hex’s legs, which now have bungee cords on them. “The problem is simpler than having to put a linear actuator on it. So some elastic . . .”
Some elastic could give the legs the tiny bit more lift he needs to get it so the robot can pivot and walk.
“—or I could put a pendulum in the back,” Haygood says. “I’d have to play around with the weights.”
The next week, Haygood says, he’ll be at Dunbar High, showing students there what he has done, seeing what the kids think about helping him build another, better Hex.
“It would be teamwork like they have never experienced before,” he says.
Video by: Andrew Windham
> Email Edward Ericson Jr.