Rescuing K-9

Fans of the long-running and ever-fantastic British TV show Dr. Who will no doubt hold a soft spot in their hearts for the Doctor’s little robot companion. No, not one of his many human sidekicks, we’re talking about K-9, the angular dog-like android that burst onto British screens back in 1977.

There were a number of original [K-9] props made by the BBC, and these were eventually sold by the corporation. One found its way to Abertay University, and it was there that [Gary Taylor], a computer science student found it. Sadly the years had not been kind to the robotic mutt, in particular water from a roof leak had damaged its internals beyond repair. With little more than the fibreglass shell to work with, he set out to rebuild K-9 and make the task the subject of his dissertation.

The original robo-dog was little more than a 1970s remote-controlled car, but its upgrades bring it firmly into the 21st century. At its heart is the inevitable Raspberry Pi 3, coupled with an Arduino mega 2560 that handles motor control and interfacing to an array of ultrasonic sensors. The Pi’s Bluetooth radio talks to an app on an Android phone, that serves as the K-9’s controller. All of which makes for an impressive upgrade, but we hope has disturbed as little of the original prop work as possible

Not everyone is lucky enough to find an original K-9, but for those destined for classic BBC prop disappointment there is always the possibility that you could build your own.

50 thoughts on “Rescuing K-9

  1. That is wrong, just wrong. I highly doubt the original internals were damaged beyond repair or even carefully built replacements. It’s just another person who can follow a Raspberry Pi guide and gutted a rare piece of history for 5min of fun.

      1. A man who had a “classic” car collection told me that there was no profit to be made in doing an exact restoration, because the people most likely to purchase such a car also remember what the price of that car was when new, and couldn’t get over the price the restorer was asking.
        He also said that it was risky to take an old car on a trip, a component failure would result in a long wait for a replacement part to arrive, whereas newer components/parts are more readily available.

        Now, K-9 is not a “classic car”, but where are the other K-9 props the Beeb sold, and what is being done, if anything, to keep them functional?

        1. That’s absurd. No one who is serious about buying is going thinks they can buy say a 57 Chevy or Shelby Cobra for what they originally went for. Go take a restored Shelby to that big Texas auction – it will go for close to a million.

      2. Neither of the statements are false. Both you and him can do what you want with your property, but that doesn’t mean it’s not ruining a piece of modern history. Of course, we assume he’s been acting with the University’s approval. In this case it’s ruining something that’s literally one of a kind. It’d be very interesting to see what technology they used for the original. Generally it’s something cleverly improvised that makes little look like a lot. As they say, it’s original only once.

        Legally doing what you like doesn’t automatically include others liking what you do.

      3. Indeed the kid can do as he pleases. He just shouldn’t brag about doing what he did. It’s not a hack. it’s what every kid with a Rpi or Ardunio who reads this site is doing – gut the old system, replace the electronics with the Pi and then run around saying “hey look at me”.

        Just another cake baker.

      1. BBC Micro was a 6502, but the machine was created by Acorn. I suspect you are thinking of the Acorn Archimedes, as that was powered by the Acorn RISC Machine. Perhaps distantly related in the fact that it was Acorn Computers?

    1. I can “see” implementing functional buttons on the back, computer vision, an LCD on the the side panel, voice circuits (replaying K-9’s audio clips).
      And a black and white striped shirt and a pea whistle, so it can be a referee on Robot Wars!
      (contestants banned for life if they harm the referee!)

  2. I agree with Darren. Not every old thing needs to be modernized. Some things should simply be rebuilt to their original specs. If you do modernize something, never do something you can’t undo later. In other words, make the changes reversible without leaving holes in the original, or copy the original and modify the copy to your heart’s content.

  3. If you look at the system diagram in the linked article, you’ll see that the student who did this project can’t spell “Receive” correctly even though it has a helpful red squiggle underneath it.
    Sure, it’s not the end of the world, and there may be extenuating personal circumstances, but it is a poor reflection on the state of the nation.
    Now get off my lawn.

    1. Of course, the no talent squad that insists on stuffing a Raspberry into every old device and calling it a hack would love it.

      These guys have no skill. None. Yeah stuff a disposable ARM board into a old box, write some stupid python script or probably copy what someone else did since these guys demonstrate zero technical talent.

  4. “original spec” was things crammed into the body by prop makers.
    a remote cotnrol car core and some motors to turn the head and extend the gun.
    making it functional again, and possibly more functional, good job. :-)
    next step would be to try to cram aibo internals into it and make it more an AI dog. ;-)

    1. K9 Returned some years ago for a few episodes in the David Tennant Era. In addition, Mary Jane got a spin-off that prominently featured K-9. Hell…. K-9 even got his own show on Jetix for a while. Long story short, he got over-exposed in the early 2000’s and now he’s out of the picture.

  5. the sfx in dr who if the 70s was not crash hot. it was bad latex suits and cyberslugs pulled on fishing lines. the series worked because viewers suspended belief and went to a wonderful world of imagination. The refurbished k9 will be closer to our memories than a perfect restoration would ever be. heres hoping it sparks the return of k9 in a later series.

  6. At first I thought: Well, why not – just ruin everything my childhood dreams paint in pink. If done properly, doing something completely unnecessary at least can be fun.
    Then I saw the FULL image (which has been cropped here on this site) and thought: Why? WHY can’t you ruin it PROPERLY? Those “ultrasonic waste-nibbles” down at K-9’s body are insults. This just looks SO BAD, so BADLY done … WHY?
    It looks like a Dalek on roller blades with a colander as a hat. Whereas THAT might even BE funny.

  7. I cannot believe someone let this bellend loose on something so unique and no doubt valuable.

    I wonder how much the university paid for it in 2011/12? I’m sure they could have got much of that back by selling it to someone who wouldn’t ruin it – even if it was in poor condition.

    1. Fully agree. Even if it had nothing to do with money (ie: the university/school selling it for more than they bought it for) it is a terrible thing to do with a prop that although may be crappy, is worth so much more un-modified than filled with ‘blinkenlights’. Even just sticking it in a museum rusty and dusty would be preferable to what has happened. Think of the effort that has gone into restoring (and finding) many of the old Dr. Who episodes!

      Blakes 7 props are the same… finding an original hand gun (liberator style, not scorpio style) would be a rare treat, and something the finder would probably never let go of.

      1. You put it much better than I did, fellow Fred. Yes – by valuable I mean of personal value to someone who would take proper care of it. From the university’s point of view this would also translate into monetary value.

        Plus, of course, you ruin *anything* the moment you put an Arduino in it.

  8. As a very-long-time Dr Who fan, I am appalled by this. It is neither ‘rescued’ nor ‘restored’ nor ‘vastly improved’. All he’s done is gut the prop, internal damage notwithstanding. After reading to the bit in the 4th paragraph about his plans it annoyed me so much I didn’t even bother to read anything further about Bluetooth, Raspi or how many DOF his sensors had. Who cares, he’s ruined an original piece of british science fiction history. He could have made a lookalike shell could he not? Because those added front sensors look crap. Yes, crap. A repro shell could have incorporated those discreetly.
    I restore vintage vehicles and see the same thing, people ‘restore’ a classic car as a rat rod where all that’s left of the original car is the body shell and the chassis, everything else is new or rehashed.
    Sorry I don’t like what he’s done here, I really don’t.

  9. Even an unfinished replica K-9 body and head is being offered for a not unsubstantial amount: https://www.ebay.com/itm/DOCTOR-WHO-K-9-ROBOT-DOG-HEAD-BODY-w-COLLAR-RARE-PROP-REPLICA-TOM-BAKER/302758889538
    And looking at the Bonhams Doctor Who auction from some years ago now, a vac-formed tards panel sold for almost 4000 GBP http://www.bonhams.com/auctions/18192/
    How this student and his supervisor did not bother with checking its value first is beyond belief. And there are conveniently no photos of the “water damage”. Everyone I know who restores anything these days takes “before”, “during” and “after”photos of what they work on so surely that would have been done here?
    Good thing they haven’t got hold of the Antikythera Mechanism they would probably put a two-dollar quartz clock movement into it.

  10. This is certainly not a screen used prop. We know from the original builders that there were exactly two props used for all the episodes K9 appeared in and they are both accounted for. One of the main reasons K9 was brought back was that Moffat discovered that the original props still existed.

    Both props were made from fiberglass. Only one has a motor in it. The other was made to provide a lightweight prop for the actors to pick up etc.

    There are several differences between this prop and the screen reference shots that are not explained by a bad restoration.

    An original screen used dalek prop sells for over thirty grand these days. If a K9 was ever put up for sale it would fetch considerably more

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