Formula 4.0 race cars racing at high speed on speed track with motion blur at sunny day

Lockdown Challenge: Build an F1 car and turn off your neighbour’s TV

Image credit: Alexey Kuznetsov | Dreamstime

This week’s Lockdown Challenges involve creating a race car from household objects and adapting a remote control so that it can be used at distance.

Once more we bring you a couple of Lockdown Challenges to inspire any budding engineers in the family. This week, Neil Downie experiments with a very long-range remote control (you could change the TV channel for your neighbours) and Crispin Andrews celebrates the 70th anniversary of Formula 1 by encouraging you to build your own car.

The IET also has a host of resources, which adults can use to engage children with the world of STEM.

We would love it if you sent in your photos and videos of your ‘Lockdown Challenge’ efforts, as well as suggestions about how to make these challenges better and ideas for new ones. Email your contributions to

Lockdown Challenge #12: The Very Remote Control and Secret Agent Message System

Since forever, we have had remote controls for electronic audio, TV and other devices. These rely on cunningly coded messages – Morse Code for robots – sent by an almost invisible infrared beam. Almost invisible? Well, you can’t see it with your eyes directly. But this infrared is in the only-just-invisible band near 1,000nm, and you can see it with a camera. Look at a remote control with your phone camera.

You will need

  • A remote control (transmitter) – and something to control with it (receiver). Something visible or audible from a long distance such as a TV or audio system.
  • A large magnifying glass.
  • A torch/flashlight.
  • A strip of wood (maybe 600mm long), tape, glue etc.

Tape or glue the magnifier onto one end of the piece of wood, and attach the torch to the remote, getting its LED as close as possible to the infrared LED. Even better, get the LEDs on wires and glue them right next to the infrared. Get some tape ready to fix them both to the wood. Now, head for a darkish, large room – the garage maybe – or go outside at night. 

Shine the torch through the lens onto a wall. Adjust the distance along the wood of the torch/remote from the lens so that it concentrates the light from the torch into a fairly small spot. The torch needs to shine its visible rays along a line just next to the invisible rays of the control, and the lens will focus both to a small spot. There is a difference in the focusing of visible light and infrared light, but it isn’t much – it doesn’t have to be perfect, a bit of beam-width is good so that you don’t miss the TV or other gadget that you are ‘talking’ to. 

But how will you see the spot made by the torch when it isn’t dark? You don’t need to! Add ‘sights’ to your infrared ray-gun. Any little pieces that stick up from the wood will do, or little rings made of card or plastic. Tape or glue something like a 30mm ring alongside the big lens, and a 10mm or so one at the other end of the wood. Adjust where you put them so that you see the spot of the LEDs on the (distant) wall through your sights.

Make sure that the remote still works when next to the TV or other gadget. Change channel? Change volume? Select other things on a screen? All OK? You are now ready to start Very Remote Controlling!

What stops the invisible beam? Check by controlling something, or with your phone camera. Stuff you can see through is generally OK... glass, for instance, or clear plastic. But do all plastics work? Water? And what about things that you can’t see through? Net curtains? Opaque plastic bags?

Now go out into the garden, take aim at the gadget you want to control and try controlling from a distance. Try increasing the distance. Can you really control the TV upstairs from the bottom of the garden? What happens with mirrors? Can you control around corners?

Remote control

Image credit: Neil Downie

The Very Remote Control Challenge

Do you have a friend who lives nearby? If you have line-of-sight vision of his or her house, get them to join in the Very Remote Control Challenge! You will need a remote that controls one of their gadgets. There are programmable remotes which can be set to work with many different electronic gadgets. Test what happens when two remotes battle to control the same electronic gadget.

Get your friend to put their device near the window so that the infrared light from your house or garden can go along a straight line to the remote control receiver. Now, take aim... find the right button... control! Check out with binoculars how you are doing, or your friend can tell you by phone. Can you send a secret, invisible message by selecting the letters on a TV program search? Can they send you a message back? How far can the Very Remote Controller go? And finally, how could you get this into the next James Bond movie?

If you liked this, try my book 'The Ultimate Book of Saturday Science'. For even more, and a free copy of 'Exploding Disk Cannons' book, visit

Lockdown Challenge #13: Make your own Formula One Car out of household stuff

Seventy years ago this month, the first-ever Formula One driver’s championship started with a race at the Silverstone circuit in England. It was the fourth year of F1, but the first organised F1 driver’s championship. Italian driver Giuseppe Farina won in an Alfa Romeo, the dominant team. In second was Argentine Juan Manuel Fangio, also in an Alfa Romeo, who would go on to win five F1 driver’s championships in the 1950s.

The cars themselves, of course, bore little resemblance to the modern-day vehicles that Lewis Hamilton and co zoom around in. Compared to today’s cars, the 1950s models were slow and pretty basic to look at. But if you’re thinking about making a model F1 car out of ordinary household stuff, the old design is a lot easier to work with.

In fact, if you use a plastic bottle for the body of the car, you get a pretty realistic shape on your retro F1 car.

Turn the bottle horizontal and cut out an opening in one side for the seats and the engine. Leave the bottle top on.

Make small holes in the other side on each side where the two sets of wheels will be and poke through two thin sticks for the axles. Round bottle tops work well as wheels, so make corresponding holes in the centre of each and feed through the wooden axel – tight enough so they don’t fall off, loose enough for them to go around

For rubber band power

Cut off the top of another plastic bottle and cut the plastic into strips down to the rim, so it looks like a propeller.

Make a hole on the inside of the bottle top and push another piece of thin wood through, sticking it on the outside with the propeller-like plastic strips at the back.

Do the same with another bottle top, but this time cut the top much smaller and glue it in place on the stick, just over a thumbs length from the first.

Take the original car bottle and make a small hole in the back, top/centre, and stick the end of the stick through the hole.

Cut the stick in half and use a knife to shave down the end of the piece attached to the propeller.

Attach a rubber band to the shaved end and wind it around the stick until there’s no band left.

Tie several more rubber bands to the end of the stick and pull them through to the opposite end of the car, through the open bottle top.

Put the bottle top back on with the ends of the elastic bands sticking out slightly, holding the bands in extension.

To make it move, twist the stick running through the middle of the car body until the elastic bands are wound up as tight as they can be.

Then let it go and watch it fly!

Things to try:

  • Try out different bottle shapes, sizes and thickness, see which one makes the car go fastest and furthest.
  • Work out other ways of powering the car: balloon, battery, etc.
  • What are the best everyday objects to use as wheels: buttons, bottle tops, cotton reels...?
  • What else could you use as a body for the car? Lego, toilet roll, lolly sticks, stiff cardboard...
  • Try a few designs and race them off against each other in your own DIY F1 Grand Prix.

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