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DIY Do-It-Yourself Electronics

Excerpted with permission from Michael Shiloh of Teach Me to Make, Resources for Makers

Traveling with DIY Electronics

Now that you’ve made something, how do you travel with it?

If you want to avoid delays or confiscation at the airport, consider this excellent advice from a discussion on the San Francisco Dorkbot mailing list:

Whenever I see the words “TSA seized”, I am compelled to respond. I write from my experience frequently traveling to foreign lands with custom and one-off electronics gear. I’m not with the government.

Like it or not, Customs, Border Patrol, and TSA must be dealt with on their terms.

Anyone who does not study and comply with exit and entry documentation requirements (and allowed items restrictions) will always face the risk of seizure of their goods or creations at any point in the process of traveling to/from a foreign country. Several artists I know suffered goods held at customs, or seized by TSA; these could have been avoided with decent documentation and preparation.

Why do consumer goods pass through with relative ease? Because they are packaged and certified with compliance stickers and serial numbers on the bottom. The manufacturer or importer has done the work of “going legit” in order to get the product out of his country and into yours. Customs, border patrol, and TSA agents recognize this branding, and respect it when conducting an inspection.

Your homegrown mechatronic gizmo requires similar care in documentation for travel. It’s rather easy and cheap, compared to the consequences.

Travel documentation is like oil for the engine of commerce.

Like oil, documentation is the cheapest part of the engine. Without it, the engine will almost certainly seize (your stuff).

Get a Carnet

Carnets are your friend when transporting objects of definite value which must travel smoothly through customs, border patrol, and TSA. They prove that you have submitted your articles for Inspection and Sealing to Customs before your trip. This can be checked luggage! Carnets have several documentation requirements.

A Carnet represents a promise NOT to sell your goods in the destination country.

Carnets are designed to smooth passage through the very thing you face: a phalanx of Byzantine guards who do not and will not understand your gizmo, or your explanation, if it’s not documented.

Tips (Suggestions from DIY professionals based on anecdotal information and not from lawyers or customs experts.)

Do not pack bad things.

  • Don’t pack anything which can be purchased locally – powdered paints, liquids, solvents, glue, matches, lighter fluid, etc.
  • Pack only pristine power supplies. No cracked or hacked-open cases. Better yet, just buy wall warts at your destination.
  • Don’t even joke about mercury switches.

De-power and “safe” everything.

  • Unplug and tape over batteries or battery packs, disconnect/insulate piezoelectric sparkers, short out big capacitors with wire, remove all antennas, power-off phones,
  • PDAs & laptops. Disconnect anything automatic or clockwork; let all springs wind completely down: no ticking allowed.

Make access and understanding easy.

  • Use tape, not screws, to hold chassis closed.
  • Use velcro to strap things together, not zip-ties.
  • Label anything clearly that’s not obvious: “battery pack – test here”, “power supply – 110VAC-12VDC”
  • Put loose parts in clear ziplock bags, labeled “spares.”

At the check-in counter, volunteer for a detailed inspection, and offer your paperwork in the order listed above. This instantly puts you in the “cooperative” category – a nice place to be.

All of this preparation ends up being worth it when the fates finally (and they always eventually do) decide to test you and your preparedness.