The galaxy’s most lovable robot inspires its fans to clone him.
“I found R2-D2 to be the funniest Star Wars character. Since I saw the first movie, I envisioned having one of my own,” recalls Federico Sesler, a 30-year-old economics student in Rome, Italy. “I wanted an R2-D2 that could run around the house and attract people’s attention with its amusing sounds.”
So he made one — his very own full-scale R2-D2. And he’s not alone.
Over the last five years, building replica R2-D2s has grown into a serious hobby scene. The R2 Builders Group, one such internet community dedicated to this craft, counts more than 2,400 members. R2 builders take great pride — perhaps obsessively and a bit protectively — in the detail they put into their reproductions of the familiar Star Wars android.
There tends to be a uniform size and look to these fan-made R2s, making them virtual copies of the real thing. That’s because many makers use a particular set of blueprints based on the actual R2-D2 prop used in the movies.
A build-your-own R2 is made with any number and combination of materials. Wood is commonly used for the interior framework; plastic, fiberglass, resin, and machined aluminum usually comprise the exterior. Some builders even make R2s with metal components, inside and out, for sturdier results.
Those people new to the craft of building an R2 are advised to start by constructing what is basically a display model, and then later add working lights and the ability for it to emit the familiar beep-boop sounds of the character. Next in skill difficulty is installing radio-control drive mechanics, so that the R2 can be driven about on wheeled legs and its dome head rotated by remote control.
Speaking of the legs, the most mechanically complex — and show-stopping — thing to build into an R2 is the ability for it to extend out, and set into position, a third leg from underneath its barrel-shaped housing, and retract it. Among R2 builders, such a feature is referred to as a “2-3-2” (an R2 that can change itself from “2-leg mode” to “3-leg” and back). The R2-D2 prop in the first Star Wars movie couldn’t even pull this off.
“As a group we had to redesign the middle leg deployment and retraction. The original R2 unit would only drop the leg, not raise it. So we actually went further with it than the original designers did,” says Kelly Krider, a 30-year-old sign maker from northern Illinois, who successfully 2-3-2ed his own R2.
Not content with constructing big remote-control toys, the R2 builder community is in the early stages of implementing artificial intelligence (AI) technologies, using lightweight PC components like notebook computers, to turn a homemade R2 into a real robot. Research into this so far has consisted mainly of using infrared sensors so the R2 unit can avoid obstacles in its path and vocal synthesizers so it can “speak” to people who walk by it.
It may be a while before a hobby-built R2 can autonomously perform even the simple actions of its movie counterpart. When a 15-inch-tall interactive R2-D2 toy was released, some R2 builders hacked them to use their electronic brains to drive their full-size R2s. “My 15-inch interactive R2 is quite uncontrollable and catches furniture without realizing it,” says R2 builder Craig Smith, a 36-year-old spa-and-pool service technician from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “I shudder to think of a 135-pound R2 running into things and still going!”
A malfunctioning R2 is not an option for many of these builders. Besides showing off their R2 at Star Wars and science-fiction/fantasy conventions, a number of them use theirs to cheer up kids in children’s hospitals or rent them out to businesses promoting the release of a Star Wars-related product.
Therefore, an R2 has to be on its best, non-injurious behavior. R2-D2 is a cute robot, not a killer cyborg, after all. So, in the same way that the R2 prop is operated behind-the-scenes in the movies, a fan-made R2 unit still needs the human touch to give it the unique and lovable personality of R2-D2.
“I feel AI is not at the point yet that I can trust to put it in a 100-pound robot,” says Alexander Kung, a 39-year-old applications engineer from Toronto. “I once had a young girl run up to my R2 and give it a hug that lasted five minutes. I don’t know if AI would be intelligent enough to know not to move.”
The R2 Builders Club
Astromech.net: Droid Building Resource