There are few geek-gasms as powerful as those that are created when a home made R2D2 Droid rolls into a comic-con. There's something about combining do it yourself robotics with Star Wars that just drives us geeks wild. And why shouldn't it? It's pretty incredible to see a life-size replica of R2D2 that moves and acts just like the one on the big screen. What's even more incredible is how many people make these remote control astromech droids in their homes. There are multiple forums serving hundreds of enthusiasts around the world. These hobbyist spend their free time collecting parts, customizing builds, and showcasing their robots at conventions.What they create is as much art as it is a robot. Check out the videos below to see R2D2 in all his glory along with the builders and families that make this a big part of their lives.
Building your own robot has never been easier. There are complete kits sold on sites like Trossen, and the Lego version (Mindstorms) is both easy to learn and surprisingly powerful. But R2D2 builders aren't working from kits. Sure, most of the frame is manufactured, but the inner workings, the custom displays that mimic actions seen in the Star Wars movies, these are all up to the individual creator. That's part of what makes these robots so entertaining to watch. In the following video make sure to watch for the cool extension from R2's dome (~1:33), the customized steam venting (~4:35) and the race of half a dozen droids (6:05).
For those who want to know more about how the actual robot is built, you can check out this interview at MakerFaire 2008. The guy yells too much, but it's a good explanation of the craft:
If you want to see R2D2 in person, chances are there's an opportunity near you. You'll find them at most comic conventions, MakerFaire, RoboGames, and pretty much anywhere where robots and Star Wars are loved.
And if you want to build your own? Well the internet's positively brimming with opportunities.You could check out artoo-detoo.net to meet one of the community leaders (Chris James aka Bothan Jedi) and watch his videos on YouTube. You could browse the forums on astromech.net to find custom specs for R2D2 or read through robotbuilder.net's helpful FAQ. Or you could go to any of the dozens of personalized web pages for builders looking to discuss their hobby. These guys seem to be everywhere. But be forewarned. Depending on how extravagant you want to get your little droid could cost you a lot of credits. Builders spend many hundreds and even many thousands of dollars on their robots.
I'm always amazed by how far reaching and accepted robots are in the public consciousness. While we've yet to produce one real robot that can think and act like a person, we've flooded our fiction with robots that are as like-able and interesting as any human characters. As more and more people pay homage to their characters and delve into amateur robotics, we're moving further into the robot culture. R2D2 is a great spokesbot for that community. He's funny, loyal, and knows how to repair star ships. I don't know about you, but those are all my requirements for a best friend.