Building BB-8 Part 1 – The Idea

Photo by Chris Pirillo, https://www.flickr.com/photos/lockergnome/17004084838
The world’s new favourite spherical droid

In case you’ve been off in space rescuing Matt Damon, let me mention that new Star Wars movie is out. For many of us who saw the original in the theatre, and then survived the egregious abuse of fan loyalty that was the prequels, The Force Awakens was like a big apology hug from JJ Abrams. “We’re sorry. Here’s the movie you deserved.”

Much like the original series, there’s a character in the new film that’s captured  the hearts of fans. The original movies had R2-D2, the helpful astromech droid who tolerated Luke’s complaining to deliver the plans for the Death Star and save his ass many times. The Force Awakens  has BB-8, an equivalently helpful droid with a giant personality who you just want to hug. Really. You want to hug him. He’s adorable.

As a roboticist, I didn’t just want to hug him; I wanted to build him. I know several people who have build R2 and other astromechs over the years; those always seemed cool to me, but it all looked pretty straightforward. When I saw BB-8, a spherical droid whose head floats above his body, my immediate reaction was “now THAT would be a  fun robot to build.”

My friend Matt introduced me to the BB-8 Builders Club, and I discovered that there were several people working on building BB-8 replicas, and some had already built them just based on what they had seen in trailers. Most notably, there’s James Bruton of Xrobots.co.uk, who in my opinion has built the coolest BB-8 out there… and published all of his files and code online. Go check it out.

But! The roboticist in me doesn’t want to follow instructions for what somebody else has built: she wants to figure it out herself. With this comes new skills (3D printing, 3D modelling), using old skills in interesting ways (mechanical engineering, electronics, programming, prototyping), and a fun little project.

I’ve been working on my BB-8 prototype for about a week now. These blog posts will be my attempt to chronicle the process and what I’ve learned. It will not be a guide to building BB-8; I can’t really do that with a prototype anyway, and I’m also going to tell you about the mistakes I’ve made. This is what it looks like to build robots. Feel free to follow along!