Science and Tech


What Can 'Star Wars' Droids Teach Us About Building Better Robots?

They might be fictional characters, but the droids of "Star Wars" are already informing the design of real robots here on Earth.
Posted at 2:17 PM, Feb 21, 2018

Could the fantastic droids of "Star Wars" ever lead us to build better robots here on Earth? Yes, and maybe in more ways than you think. A new review of our robotics research shows it's already happening.

When it comes to communication, R2-D2 and BB-8 don't ever use words you or I could understand. But their chatter shows they're paying attention to things and reacting to them accordingly.

Ben Burtt, sound designer on the original "Star Wars," said that was no accident.

"The idea came up to really combine the sort of human sound with the electronic sound," Burtt said. "That way, we still might be able to have the character of the machine with the personality and emotion of a living organism."

And it works. Research has shown that robots don't need words to communicate on some rudimentary level. Both children and adults assign emotions to the beeps and whistles of robot-speak.

How about mobility? R2's three-wheeled arrangement is stable enough that it's apparently universal; it can be found on semi-autonomous Earth robots, like the Roomba.

But robotics experts say BB-8's single sphere wouldn't be a good way to get around on the fictional planet of Jakku or on any one of Earth's real beaches or deserts. Biomimicry, where a robot borrows movements like running or slithering from living creatures, would probably be more efficient.

Maybe the ultimate in biomimicry is a robot that looks and moves like a human. Balance and dexterity can still challenge our humanoid bots, but some of our newest models already have C-3PO outclassed.

That shape is also useful where there's no gravity. NASA once kept a robotic upper body on the space station, which has arms and hands to grab things. The goal is to create a machine that can be even more dexterous than a human in a spacesuit.

And weightless environments also present unique options for getting around. NASA once developed a companion robot for astronauts that would push itself around with built-in fans — inspired by none other than the lightsaber-training bot Luke Skywalker used.