Driving BB-8: More Than One Way to Move this Bot

BB-8 is the much loved new droid introduced in the 2016 movie Star Wars: The Force Awakens, though in my case from the very first trailer released in 2014 I liked it for the interesting engineering problems it posed. How would you make a robot that’s a ball that rolls along, but with a head that stays on top while the ball rolls under it?

To make the ball roll, the answer most people found obvious at first was to use the analogy of a hamster wheel. The hamster running inside makes the wheel turn. In the BB-8 building world, which is quite large, the drive mechanism has come to be called a hamster drive, or just a hamster.

Magnets holding the head on
Magnets holding the head on

For the head, it seemed obvious that there would be magnets inside the ball, perhaps held in place near the top of the ball by a post extending up from the hamster. Corresponding magnets in attraction would then be attached to the underside of the head, and balls (also mounted under the head) would keep the head moving smoothly over the ball.

The magnet approach for the head has turned out to be the method used by all BB-8 builders that I’ve seen. However, the hamster has turned out to be only one of multiple solutions. Since the original debut many different methods have been used in builds and we’re going to have a lot of fun looking at each separate approach. It’s almost like revealing a magic trick; but really it’s all just clever engineering.

Note that for the actual movie, a combination of 7 or 8 props and CGI were used. The official working BB-8s that are shown at various promotional events were built after the movie was made and as of this writing, few details of their construction have been released. One notable detail, however, is that they aren’t using hamster drives.

Below are details of all the different BB-8 drive systems I’ve seen so far that have been built along with how they work.

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That’s No Moon – That’s a Bamboo Death Star

At first glance, [Frank Howarth]’s turned bamboo Death Star seems like a straight woodworking project. No Arduino controlled lights, no Raspberry Pi for audio clips of an X-wing attack or escaping TIE fighter. In other words: where’s the hack?

It’s a freaking bamboo Death Star!

If that’s not enough for you, check out the pattern on the surface of the finished model. That’s not painted on – those are the layers of the laminated bamboo lumber used to create the rings [Frank] used to form the structure. After lots of turning, sanding and polishing, the characteristic vascular bundles of the bamboo create light and dark panels for a convincing effect of the Death Star’s surface detail. And although we like the natural finish, we can imagine a darker stain might have really made the details pop and made for an effect closer to the original.

Still not hackish enough? Then feast your eyes on [Frank]’s shop. It’s a cavernous space with high ceilings, tons of natural light, and seemingly every woodworking machine known to man. While the lathe and tablesaw do a lot of the work for this build, the drool-worthy CNC router sees important duty in the creation of the multiple jigs needed for the build, and for making the cutout for the superlaser, in what must have been a tense moment.

Bamboo is an incredible material, whether for fun builds like this or for more structural uses, like a bamboo bike. All this bamboo goodness puts us in the mood to call on [Gerrit Coetzee] for a new installment on his “Materials You Should Know” series.

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Perfecting The DIY BB-8

Until about a year ago, the Droid Builder’s Club had just about everything figured out to build any sort of robot from Star Wars. Building an R2D2 clone was easy, and even R5 and R6 droids were common. There were even a few attempts to clone IG-88. Then Disney happened, The Force Awakens was released, and the world was introduced to the hero of the third trilogy, BB-8. Several people have gone to incredible lengths to replicate BB-8 as a unique homebrew robot, but no one has put in more effort than [James Bruton]. He’s wrapping up his third DIY version of BB-8.

[James]’ third version of the BB-8 droid has two older brothers we’ve seen before. [James] started the construction of his earliest BB-8 not long after the trailer for The Force Awakens, and long before we knew the makers of Sphero robot toys weren’t behind this hero puppet. Since then, a number of improvements have been made to the drive system, allowing the third version of [James]’ BB-8 to turn on a dime and roll just like its on-screen counterpart.

Right now, [James] is about 80% done with his newest droid, with just a bit extra circuitry to have all the functionality seen on the ‘real’ stage droid. Like most of the R2D2 builds out there, there might be enough room inside this droid for some additional capabilities. There appears to be enough space behind one of the body panels for an extending arm, making the possibility of a flamethrower thumbs up very real.

[James] is also one of the judges for this year’s Hackaday Prize, and will (hopefully) be at this year’s Hackaday Prize award ceremony and Hackaday SuperConference in San Francisco. If a set of highly likely probabilities pans out, [James]’ BB-8 will also be at the con, and we’ll see it careening down that one weird block of Lombard Street. Awesome.

Entire playlist for the build of BB-8 v.3 below. Pictures are available here.

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Full-size AT-ST Star Wars Build

Think you made a cool tree-house for your kids? Sorry to burst your bubble, but we don’t think anything can top this full-size 1:1 replica of a Star Wars AT-ST — complete with sound effects and moving turrets! Did we mention it seats two?

Built in his backyard, this AT-ST is constructed of wood, plastic, and sheet metal. On the inside it is decked out with joysticks, display panels, and other knobs and buttons for your imagination to go wild with. It even features solar panels on the roof to power two ventilation fans to keep you cool while daydreaming of blowing up Rebel scum on Hoth.

Stay tuned after the break to see a video of it in action.

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The Ultimate 1:1 BB-8 Build Guide

BB-8 is not only a cute little droid but also presents dandy of a challenge for hackers ’round the globe to try and recreate in the garage. Nonfunctional models are a dime a dozen and the novelty has long worn off the Sphero toy. This brings us to a legit full-scale BB-8, seen in action in the video after the break.

Lucky for us, [Ed Zarick] has written up a blog post that’s as impressive as the build itself. [Ed] has drawn some inspiration and shared knowledge from several online groups focused around recreating the BB-8. He also provides some thorough Solidworks assemblies that look painfully detailed.

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Star Wars Droid Translating Helmets

Now how’s this for an expo costume? [AEInnovations] put together a set of Droid helmets that talk to each other in droid speak!

Before you get too excited, we have to let you know, they aren’t actually translating anything. One, there’s no such thing as a complete droid speak language from Star Wars, and two, it’d be ridiculous. No, what he’s created is a bit simpler, but nonetheless awesome and very clever.

The helmets have walkie talkies built in, so two people wearing the helmets can simply talk to each other, in plain old English — well, or maybe Klingon. But when you speak, a sensor in the helmet notices you speaking, and starts broadcasting a randomized droid speech for everyone else to hear.

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Imperial Shuttle Drone Is Sure To Scare the Cat

[Adam Woodworth] tries to build some kind of RC plane every month. He’s been at it for almost a decade, and he’s getting pretty damn good at it. By day, he’s a Hardware Engineer at Google, though he went to MIT for Aerospace Engineering. Coincidence? We think not.

His latest project is an Imperial Shuttle drone, or to be specific, a Lambda class imperial shuttle — the infamous Shuttle Tydirium. You have to watch this thing unfold.

Using paper model plans, [Adam] printed out the shuttle on a combination of 3mm and 6mm thick foam board (Depron), and then assembled it. This kept the model light enough that the set of quad rotors would have more than enough power to fly it around.

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