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Students in Idaho build functional ‘Star Wars’ R2-D2 robot

POCATELLO, Idaho — What started as a senior project for a student enrolled in Idaho State University’s College of Technology Robotics program has evolved into something that many Star Wars fans have dreamed of for decades — designing and building a fully-functional R2-D2 robot.

The Robotics program has one fully constructed R2-D2 robot and another that’s under construction that program director Shane Slack said is hopeful will be done in time for September’s Snake River Comic Con in Pocatello.

“Originally, one of the students came up and said they wanted to build an R2-D2 robot for a final project, you know, and it’s movies and characters like this that get most kids excited to join this type of program,” Slack said. “We didn’t really have 3-D printing at the time so trying to find the materials to make it and coming up with the mechanical aspects of it was difficult. Honestly, at the end of the two-month period it didn’t look anything like R2-D2.”

It took eight weeks to construct the first R2-D2 robot’s basic framework, which included two aluminum plates manufactured by the machine shop that serve as R2-D2’s shoulders. The original model featured a plexiglass outer shell.

Over the next two semesters, students continued to shape the exterior skin, hardware and programming aspects until they had a functioning R2-D2 robot.

“The red R2-D2 was started in 2010 and now we actually have some of the upperclassmen recruit some of the first- and second-semester students to serve as team members on these projects,” Slack said. “So the final semester students will have younger students come in and work on code, circuitry and other components to help them create these massive machines.”

A few years later the implementation of advanced CAD, or computer-aided design software, laser cutting and 3-D printers allowed R2-D2 to get a makeover.

“We had six or seven teams of students improving software, sensors and drive systems over the next few years,” Slack said. “The initial drive system only allowed him to travel about 2 mph and now he’ll go 28 mph.”

R2-D2 robot is a fun pop-culture project students can relate to. But it’s also a teaching tool that lets students use what they’ve learned through the construction process on other robotic systems, Slack said.

Inside the red R2-D2 several electronic and mechanical systems make the robot tick.

“Inside we have a main board that communicates with the operator, so that main board receives commands from our remote and basically anything our operator does with the remote the robot interoperates those commands and executes a series of other commands,” Slack said. “We can open the doors, move the arms, it can run a vocal processor to communicate and the main board is capable of running 128 other circuit boards.”

The process of designing and developing all the internal circuitry is completed by robotics students.

This process involves designing the board with CAD software. Students determine how each electronic component physically connects to another. The board itself is then machined out of copper and fiberglass.

“The secondary board that mounts to the main board is a Wi-Fi radio, which is another student-built board that allows us to communicate directly with R2-D2,” Slack said. “With this student-built board we’ve tested the range out and it works just fine 3 miles out, and the board is about the size of an SD card.”

After the first R2-D2 robot, Slack said the team really understood what worked well with the original model and what improvements could be made.

They’re now in the process of building R2-D2 version 2.0. Slack said their goal is to document each step of the process into video and text files so that any person can download the materials and make their own R2-D2.

“The students have to make the website, the manuals and technical documentation and the assembly videos just like they were working in industry,” Slack said.

For the past several years, the Robotics program has showcased the R2-D2 robot at the Salt Lake Comic Con, all thanks to a bet made, and lost, by one of the event’s producers.

“We were attending a Robotics competition in Salt Lake and on the last day one of the producers of the Salt Lake Comic Con came in and were doing an R2-D2 demonstration,” Slack said. “As he was walking around he saw our R2-D2 robot. When he noticed that it was 3-D printed he was actually floored that we were able to do it because he had stated a few weeks ago that he made a bet with a friend that nobody could 3-D print a R2-D2. But we did.”

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