Since its release on Apr. 16, there has been a lot of buzz surrounding the latest teaser trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. During the brief two minutes of footage, fans were treated to appearances by Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, new characters, and the rolling droid BB-8.
BB-8 has been the talk of robotics enthusiasts ever since the droid used in the film made an appearance at the Star Wars Celebration Convention in Anaheim, California. It turns out that BB-8 is not a mere product of digital effects, as many viewers initially may have thought but a physical remote-controlled robot. Part of what makes the droid stand out as more than a prop is its ability to rotate a spherical body while moving its head separately. During the convention, BB-8 rolled out onto the stage to much applause. While it would have been easier to create a digital robot, the makers of Star Wars thought that it would help the actors to have a real droid to interact with.
According to Business Insider, BB-8 is the joint creation of Lucasfilms and Sphero, a robotics start-up from Boulder. Currently, one of the company’s most popular products is Sphero 2.0, a spinning robot that closely resembles BB-8. This spherical robot, however, is controllable by phone app and designed to help kids learn how to code software. Sphero plans to launch a line of miniature BB-8s that will be available in stores soon.
Many people have guessed at how BB-8 might work, but the company has remained secretive about the specifics. Several guesses theorize that magnets are used to achieve the rotating motion. Industrial designer Christian Poulsen even created his own BB-8 out of a hacked Sphero 1.0 in a project for Make: Magazine. Poulsen used neodymium magnets (a type of magnets sometimes used in robotics for their strength) to attach a head made out of foam.
Activity: Learn more about robots by studying the technology that makes them work. Most robots require some computer programming for them to perform various functions. Many basic designs incorporate Arduino, a microcontroller platform that allows a robot maker to control its physical outputs like lights and motors. A good learning source is the Arduino website. If you want to take the next step and make a real robot, there are numerous online guides available for building a basic Arduino robot.
Jobs: Robotics engineer, special effects manager