The Man Behind the New EJS Start Lights

Get to Know NAFA People – Dave Thomas, the ‘Flying Nerd’


The first in a series designed to let readers know some of the people behind the scenes at NAFA

by Emma Mak, NAFA Communications Committee
Dave Thomas with his flying pup, Cassie, on the wing of his Cirrus SR22

NAFA is incredibly thankful to have Dave Thomas, a Go Dog Go! member from North Carolina, as a technical consultant on the Technology Committee. Some of you may recognize Dave as the person behind the APES (Automatic Pass Evaluator System) used in the Championship rings at NAFA’s CanAm Flyball Classic. 

In 2018, Dave created a prototype for new start lights (light trees) donating all his engineering time, which could have easily cost many thousands of dollars, and charging NAFA only for the cost of parts. NAFA’s goals for new development of EJS include reduction of overall cost, easily replaceable parts, and an eye towards reducing shipping costs as supplier rates continue to escalate. These are all things Dave delivered in his prototype for the start lights.  They’ve since been tested alongside the current lights at multiple events in the East and Midwest with great success. Now, NAFA is a few months away from having five new EJS start light sets, ready to replace existing sets as they fail.

New EJS Start Lights

The new lights offer the following features:

– one horizontal light instead of two vertical ones, saving space and reducing weight for shipping

– use an affordable, readily available 20V battery that can be charged in 1 hour

– low cost, easily replaceable parts – including LED light strips, Raspberry Pi computer

– flexibility in terms of how the lights can be programmed to work and look

The Technology Committee was initially concerned that competitors would find the horizontal configuration of the lights too different from the original, but as Jonathan Bescher, NAFA Supervising Judge in Region 9 explains, “It took a few heats to get used to the horizontal flow of the lights, but once you saw it,  it was very easy to adjust.” He adds, “The feedback I have heard from competitors has all been positive. With the lights not hanging down from the poles, it allows more room and visibility to see the time displays behind the box loaders.” Flags and lane wins are indicated by red lights or green flashing lights at the far end of each side (left for flag left lane, right for flag right lane, etc.).

Start Lights in action…*

* NOTE:
The brightness of the lights in this video is not true to life, due to camera exposure settings. During tests, the New EJS Start Lights were found to be as bright, or brighter than existing lights.

As NAFA looks to the future of the EJS, Dave would like to totally eliminate the need for head table workers and work toward fully automated, real time tournament scoring. Line judge time sheets could be replaced with software on tablets. Dave has already written software for this (the “Stats Helper” application) that obtains times from the EJS, and line judges need to only define run order and confirm race result. Lighter, thinner time displays, as well as moving away from Farmtek’s custom designed hardware to off-the-shelf hardware and open source software where possible, are all being discussed.

So, who is Dave Thomas? Dave retired from a 35-year career at IBM, including 15 years as a chip designer and 15 years of software development of C++ and kernel level C debuggers. 

In Dave’s own words (Warning: highly technical content ahead), “Projects included DRAM , numerous analog, and microprocessor designs. I got a patent for the first NMOS, non-volatile RAM cell—a big deal before CMOS technology was affordable.  I also spent several years designing high frequency DC/DC convertors and the chip to make the designs possible.  I share a patent for the first 1 Mhz, monolithic DC/DC convertor chip (along with several of my co-workers).” 

Later he did the hardware design for the for worldwide compatible modem for the Thinkpad machines. He adds, “Back then, countries had widely varied regulatory requirements which drove many unique hardware designs. My ‘universal’ design had programmable electrical characteristics so a single hardware design could pass regulatory requirements in all countries.”

It’s okay if you didn’t understand all of the above two paragraphs, you’re not alone. To say Dave has an absolute passion for all things technical would be an understatement. In his retirement, his enthusiasm hasn’t dwindled in the least. “Now I do embedded hardware and software development for fun. I just love writing code in any language! It’s instant gratification versus chip design.”

With his penchant for riding electric unicycles and being a licensed commercial drone operator, as Dave would be the first to admit, he tends towards super geeky pursuits . . . but he and his wife, Sandy, also a former engineer at IBM, have plenty of decidedly non-nerd hobbies, including skiing, scuba diving, and hiking in Montana. And if you ask Dave how he got into flyball he’ll tell you, “It was a good excuse to fly! Flying to a flyball tournament was a nice alternative to a weekend trip for a $100 hamburger.” Dave is also an instrument-rated pilot and owns his own plane, a Cirrus SR22. 

Having a similar Cirrus airplane saved Dave’s life in 2016, when he survived a crash with “only a collapsed T12 vertebra.” The Cirrus is special for having a ballistic parachute system.  Due to engine power loss during that flight, Dave as pilot was able to take quick action, pulling an emergency handle which launched a rocket which then deployed a parachute, allowing the whole plane to safely descend to the ground.

See a nail-biting demonstration of this feature in the above brief video

The future of NAFA EJS looks bright, in huge part thanks to Dave’s generous contributions of hours of time and brain power. Ask Dave if he has any answers for a technical issue and he’ll rapidly provide myriad detailed and innovative solutions. Not only does he generate creative ideas, he quickly hones in on the most practical solution, and with NAFA’s go-ahead, gets the work done. 

Dave plans to bring a new start light set to CanAm 2019 for demonstration to interested flyballers. You can find him near the Pit Boss area . . . if he’s not off somewhere riding his electric unicycle or racing with Go Dog Go!