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This article first appeared in Make: Volume 41.

This article first appeared in Make: Volume 41.

Ever since I unveiled him at Burning Man in 2005, Russell the Giraffe’s been a crowd favorite — an interactive electric quadruped who speaks with a British accent. I’ve transported Russell, who is 18 feet tall and weighs one ton, to every Bay Area Maker Faire since the first, in 2006. But this May I received an unexpected message: Russell, his namesake programmer Russell Pinnington, and I were invited to the inaugural White House Maker Faire.

Obama has always been a fan of the self-employed entrepreneurs, the inventors, the makers. He chose to host a faire — in his house — and he wanted Russell.

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You don’t say no to the White House. But right away the distance and timeline were very daunting. Russell has never traveled farther than Nevada, never traveled alone, and never had such a tight schedule — less than 30 days to get from San Diego to Washington, D.C. I was filled with pride at having been invited, but could we pull this off in time?

Right away, Maker Faire’s Sherry Huss and Louise Glasgow offered to help with funding, and I put together a plan for the trip to Washington. This was unknown territory; he’d be in a shipping container, all alone, with me nowhere near to keep an eye on him. As the momentum built, it became clear that there was no way I could handle things along with my day job as a fire alarm and security systems programmer. But my good friend Alan Murphy, who runs Murphy Surplus, said to not worry; he would front the money for the container and getting the giraffe shipped and handle all the logistics.

 

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with nine days to go …

Alan commissioned a custom ocean-going shipping container — a 10-foot version cut from a larger one — and had it shipped from Los Angeles. That gave us one evening to load it and only four days to make it to the Smithsonian. If anything went wrong at this point, the gig would be lost.

The container’s inside was nine feet, six inches — tight, but with his neck and tail removed, Russell is exactly nine feet long. We slid the giraffe into the box, which still  reeked of fresh paint from the previous day’s construction, and he fit perfectly. The shipping company showed up early, and Russell began his four-day trip.

His human companions reached the Smithsonian’s storage facility full of butterflies — in what condition would we find him? But the giraffe arrived exactly as he had been packed.

The crew at the Smithsonian had never seen anything like this. They milled about like excited kids as we extracted Russell from the container and put him back together. As I powered him up, checked his computer and hydraulic systems, and walked him back and forth, they stared in amazement at the robot with illuminated spots.

What they were seeing was the culmination of years of work on a machine that walks on four tall legs, all made of hand-welded steel. Russell is radio-controlled and fully self-contained, running on 36 volts worth of deep-cycle batteries. His heart is a 3-horsepower electric DC motor that turns two hydrostatic drive pumps, which run at a constant speed and need only a simple servo to walk forward or backward. Everything else Russell does on his own, running Raffe-Ware, Pinnington’s modular control program.

The day of the faire, we went to get the giraffe on a tow-truck rig. Right away we noticed a possible problem: The giraffe up on the rig was very high in the air — so high that we feared he might get stuck inside the loading dock and have to be taken apart again. But we rolled forward cautiously, and he cleared the door by a few inches.

That wasn’t the only concern. Our driver spent a few minutes going over the route in his mind. There would be many overpasses, and a few long tunnels to go through. We estimated our height at around 13 feet, plus a few inches — approximately the maximum height of most diesel rigs.

Compound that with heavy traffic and little time, and we decided to risk it, with a top-heavy load, a driver who had presumably never driven a robotic giraffe, and a great deal of trepidation. The giraffe cleared the bridges with inches to spare, but the tunnels were perilous — boxed lights on the roof provided an obstacle course that he could crash into at any second. If he struck anything it would not only damage him for the show, but could rip him off the rig entirely.

Although Russell made it unscathed, we were not yet clear. We still had multiple layers of security to pass and no idea what the Secret Service would say about a huge robot giraffe heading for the White House.

In the inspection yard, the yardmaster approached me and asked for my paperwork. “I have none, sir,” I shakily replied. After a minor interrogation and a review by the Secret Service, an armored SUV sped into the yard and out hopped another agent, with guns, body armor, and god knows what else strapped to his chest and belt. He said he would escort me to the White House immediately.

Here we were, a couple of guys who hacked together a pretty cool project, but … the White House? Really? We were going in.

We set up the giraffe near the rose garden and waited. The heat was unbearable and most of the event moved indoors. And then he was there, the President of the United States. As he made his way up the lawn toward me, I just kept telling myself, “Don’t pass out. Don’t pass out.”

“I like those ears!” he commented first, and I greeted him and shook his hand. I did my best to describe the giraffe, and I got him to pet it. “He has a bit of an accent,” Obama noted, and we had a good chuckle about that. “Now, I hear you can ride this?” he asked, adding that the Secret Service would never allow it. He motioned me over for photos and put his arm around me.

I was arm in arm with the leader of the free world.

I can’t thank everyone enough who helped make this happen. It was a dream that I never knew I had until the possibility arose. People ask me where we will end up next. “I don’t know,” I say. “I’m just holding onto his tail and he’s dragging me along.”

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