The 24 Hour $75 UFO


Why is there a giant UFO hovering over me?
In October of 2013 the Milwaukee Makerspace put together an event called Makerfest.  It was an event celebrating making and creativity.  After Makerfest the Betty Brinn Children’s Museum (BBCM) approached the makerspace about collaboratively putting on a larger event – a true Maker Faire.

Members of the makerspace and BBCM then needed to solve the basics – When, Where, and How.  After reviewing calendars for numerous Milwaukee events and location and other Maker Faires throughout the country the weekend of September 27th and 28th was selected.  From there, we needed to find a location.  Several large venues in town were approached, with a home being found in the Expo Center at Wisconsin State Fair park.  In a wonderful turn of events, the State Fair grounds was already hosting Harvest Fair that weekend – also a free event!  Working with the Harvest Fair organizers at the State Fair grounds has been a rewarding and delightful experience. They have been wonderfully supportive as we plan the event.

Prior to this year’s Wisconsin State Fair, we were notified of a small booth that they typically use to advertise the Harvest Fair. We were offered the opportunity to use some of it to present Maker Faire Milwaukee. Ideas began to develop and discussion ensued…

On 10:30am of State Fair’s opening day I sent out a proposal:

My proposal:
Build a UFO of some sort – I’m thinking PVC, plywood, and fabric construction.  Make it big and attention grabbing.  Suspend it from the ceiling (so the top doesn’t need a ton of detail).  Run a wire (fishing line?) out the bottom to a weight or other “hard point” on the ground.  Put a robot, a cow, and/or something else interesting on the line as if they were being abducted/returned.   Some sort of sign saying “Maker Faire Milwaukee Landing HERE September 27th and 28th –“.

I received a few “Go for it” comments in response.

So, I went for it. Work, being wonderful as always, gave me the rest of Thursday, as well as Friday, off. So now I had time.


Next, to evaluate the ‘space.  By ~1:30 pm I was at the state fair grounds taking measurements and pictures of the booth.

Then, a plan.  I tend to design things in my head, so I spent the driving time from work to State Fair (~30 minutes) brainstorming a design, and the time afterward tweaking the design for the space.  I contacted the team at Betty Brinn Children’s museum and was invited to stop by to pick up some supplies.  I got to Betty Brinn and we commenced exploring the workshop.  One key discovery was finding some mdf rings that were waste material from one of their other builds.  They were 2’ in diameter and of reasonable thickness.  Perfect, we had a core!

We continued discussing and brainstorming the build – I mentioned that it would be really great to have some exciting/interesting lighting to attract attention.  Awesomely, they had a few theatrical LED PAR lights that were available for the build. Perfect. Now I had a core, a design, and a rough plan. Time to go to the hardware store.

I went to the hardware store and picked up the following:

Quantity Item
11 ½” PVC pipe (10’ length)
3 ½” PVC pipe coupler
1 1×4 x 8’
1 2×4 x 8’
1 1# box of 1 ⅝” deck screws
3 Eye bolts (hanging points)

By 5:00pm I rolled into the Milwaukee Makerspace with an SUV-full of supplies and no schedule past “get it done”.  As I got into the space and described what I was doing, I instantly had several of the members offer to help with the build. Luckily, one of them was great with the CNC router, so I quickly sketched up a design for the exterior rib joint and asked him to help me set it up on the CNC router.  Within the hour it was up and running, cutting the 2×4 into the 12 rib joints that I needed.

While the CNC router was cutting the rib joints, I proceeded to mark the circular pieces that I got from BBCM into 12ths.This was more difficult than I expected. I finally computed the circumference, divided by 12, marked out that distance on tape, then wrapped the tape around the piece.  I ended up being off less than 1/16”.  I then used that one ring to mark all of the others.


By that point the first of the CNC joints was complete.  I cut down one of the PVC pipes into 3’ 4” sections, then mounted two of them on the rib joint.  Taking that assembly, I then flexed the PVC toward each other until I got a shape I liked.  It came out to really close to 24” between them, so that became my core height.  I cut (3) 24” pieces from the 1×4 and used them to attach two of the rings together, defining the core of the UFO.


Once the core was created, it was a matter of making the ribs and attaching them.  Once all of the ribs were attached I mounted the remaining PVC pipes around the circumference to finish out the shape.

From there, mount the lighting and eye bolts.  The eye bolts can even be used as the mounting bolts for the lights.

At this point I was ready to skin it – but I wasn’t sure what to use. I went to American Science and Surplus and explored for a bit to find a solution.  The big issue was to determine an inexpensive skin.  Looking around, we found Mylar emergency blankets.  PERFECT.  Light and inexpensive.  Buy 8 of them.


Using two sided permanent tape along each of the ribs and help from friends we skinned the UFO – there is a bit of an art to minimizing the amount of wrinkles. Each emergency blanket covers across four ribs (3 segmens), so eight emergency blankets are needed for the entire UFO (4 top & 4 bottom).  The clear dome was a plastic dome one of the members had in their garden.


In our case, we needed to move the UFO from the Milwaukee Makerspace to State Fair Park – some 7 miles away.  So I brought my kayak trailer (which I tow with my Miata) and built a platform on it, then bolted the UFO to the platform.  We skinned the rest of it and left two panels open to access the inside.

I didn’t realize it was on my bucket list, but it was.  I have now towed a UFO across the city of Milwaukee behind a Miata with the top down.  It was a bit stressful, but held together pretty well at speeds up to ~40 mph. The big issue wasn’t wind, but bumps.  A couple of the screws attaching the core together pulled out.  Luckily, once we got the the fairgrounds I was able to screw it back together.





Due to the time – 7am – I was only able to get one person to help with the install.  I rigged up a pulley system to one of the ceiling trusses and had my assistant lift the UFO while I stabilized it. Once it was close to the right location, I climbed up into the trusses and hung it using chains.

A bit of tweaking the lighting, organization of the booth, and all was ready.

Just like many projects, there is yet more on the drawing boards…  Radar dish, levitating cows, and all sorts of fun.