No hamster spins inside the BB-8 droid starring in Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens directed by J.J. Abrams. BB-8 is an astromech droid with a ball shaped body rolling independently from a domed head that reminds its colleague R2D2. The inquisitive and quirky character conquered the fans of the sci-fi saga produced by Disney and Lucas Film. But how does it work?
Our quest goes from sketches to merchandising. From the initial concept design to the research of Carlos Sánchez and Emilio Gelardo, two Star Wars fans who tried to crack the droid’s technology, and the recently launched app-enabled BB-8 toy by Sphero.
The character was realized by the Pinewood Studios creature shop. But BB-8 is not just a computer graphic design, it was actually created as a practical, functioning robot that can roll around in the real world.
Director J.J. Abrams said “There were a lot of discussions about how having a computer graphic BB-8 would be so much easier. But we knew it would be better for the film, for the actors, for the sets, for the look of it, if it were performed” – watch the video.
Late designer and illustrator Ralph McQuarry, father of Darth Vader, and many other characters’ designs once said he thought R2D2 “as running on a giant ball bearing – just a sphere, a circle, wheel-like. He had gyros so he could go in any direction on this ball”.
Spanish designers Carlos Sánchez and Emilio Gelardo investigated in the droid’s technology on their website HowDoesBB8Work?.
“We couldn’t find any good explanations on the internet so Emilio and I decided to team up to first figure out how it worked and then explain it the best we could. It was a reverse engineering process since we only had a few images and a few leads” said Carlos Sánchez to ArchiPanic.
The designers that created also an interactive and animated 3D model that runs on their website suggest that BB-8 technology might be related with Sphero, a former start-up funded by Disney’s first accelerator program in 2014.
The company now commercialises BB-8™ rolling and beeping toy. The new Sphero gadgets are remotely controlled via a mobile app, can create and project holographic recordings and respond to voice messages. The brand developed also the Force Band™ bracelet that allows to control and interact with BB-8 with Jedi gestures.
But Sánchez and Gelardo found out also that Disney’s Imagineering R&D group filed a patent for a magnetic balancing robot-drive even before they acquired Lucas Film and invested in Sphero.
The patent describes a robot with a spherical body and four internal wheels that allow it to roll in any direction. Each wheel is connected to a motor while a base plate serves as a counterweight, helping the robot maintain a low centre of gravity. Gyroscopes and accelerometers are used to determine the machine’s positioning.
The designers show also two possible solutions for BB-8 floating head. In both designs the head is magnetic. The first mechanism has the head attached to a vertical mast, the second one positions it on a rotated arch-shaped axis.
Disney hasn’t revealed the droid’s technology yet and Star Wars geeks keep investigating, until a leak will reveal the truth. Because let’s face it. If the Death Star plans were leaked, so BB-8 will.
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