Today sees the opening of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the first of a new trilogy in the beloved sci-fi franchise. Fans have been waiting anxiously to see whether the new films hold up to the originals in a way that the prequel trilogy arguably failed to do, but it also holds significant interest for the engineering community – thanks to a little droid called BB-8.
Director J.J. Abrams first sketched out the BB-8 droid on a napkin; a basic idea of two circles, one atop the other, with a little dotted eye. From there, the challenge for the film crew's creature shop was to bring it to life. Abrams wanted it to be a practical effect, so there were a range of technical challenges to overcome.
In the end, the BB-8 you see in the films is a combination of half a dozen practical versions; a static version that could twist and turn for close-ups, a couple of versions using stabiliser wheels that could be driven by remote control, one that could be picked up by actors, one that balanced like a Weeble toy, and one that was controlled by two puppeteers using rods. This meant that CGI effects could be kept to a minimum, being used to remove the puppeteers from shots rather than to create the character.
However, while the screen BB-8 is an amalgam of those different versions, there is another BB-8…
Although they had ruled out creating a single, practical robot BB-8 for filming, the team behind it – led by senior animatronic designer Joshua Lee and electronic design and development supervisor Matthew Denton – set about creating one anyway to show the fans.
While they haven't revealed exactly how it works, Star Wars fans are already sharing ideas – which you can see on the site How BB-8 Works. (If you're an engineer with any insights, they'd love to hear from you!)
But that isn't all!
In addition, there's a version that you can bring home, made by a company called Sphero who already had considerable experience with round robots. This is where it gets really interesting for us, because this little robot can help to inspire the STEM enthusiasts of the future – something the engineering industry badly needs. By connecting it to an app, budding software and systems engineers will be able to code new programs for the robot.
At European Springs, we're always keen to support initiatives that can help to build interest in the engineering industry, and with the enormous popularity of Star Wars behind it, we think this little droid could well be the one we're looking for! Future young Padawans could easily grow up from coding a little BB-8 to wielding the power of the Force – or even landing coveted jobs with bespoke spring manufacturers…