Student View
D-O and BB-8, two droids from the Star Wars films

D-O (right) is the newest droid in the Star Wars saga.

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STANDARDS

NGSS: Core Idea: ETS1.B

CCSS: Speaking and Listening: 1

TEKS: 6.3D, 7.3D, 8.3D, P.3B, RPD.4G, RPD.2F

Robots: Star Wars vs. the Real World

How do the robotic stars of the science fiction series compare with real-life robots?

AS YOU READ, THINK ABOUT how robots could be used to help solve real-world problems.

The ninth and final episode of the Skywalker saga, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, premieres in theaters this month. A lot has changed in the Star Wars universe since the series began in 1977. But, as always, fans can expect mind-blowing space battles, epic lightsaber duels, and out-of-this-world alien creatures. Of course, they’ll also see the return of some of Star Wars’ most popular robot characters—or droids, as they’re called in the films.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker opens in theaters this month. It’s the ninth and final episode of the Skywalker story. The series began in 1977. A lot has changed in the Star Wars universe since then. But fans can still expect amazing space battles, impressive lightsaber fights, and out-of-this-world alien creatures. Of course, some of Star Wars’ most popular robot characters will also return. They’re called droids in the films. 

Even though these mechanical creations are fantasy, they borrow a lot of inspiration from real life, says Neal Scanlan. He’s responsible for special creature effects and has created many of the droids seen in recent Star Wars films. Scanlan explains that when he and his team start designing a new droid, they first look at common everyday devices, from toasters to farm equipment. Then they incorporate aspects of these objects into their fictional robot. “That way a droid is not so abstract and futuristic that we can’t relate to it,” he says.

While many of the droids in the movies are costumed actors, puppets controlled by people off-screen, or computer animations, some are real, functional machines. One of those droids is BB-8, created by Scanlan for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It took a lot of trial and error before he and his team were able to create a working robot that operates in real life just as it appears on-screen. BB-8 even accompanies the movie’s stars on the red carpet for each film’s premiere. The little droid isn’t so different from actual robots being used today. Like their fictional counterparts, real-life robots are changing the way we work, interact, and explore our world.

These robot characters are fantasy, but they borrow a lot of ideas from real life, says Neal Scanlan. He’s responsible for special creature effects, and he created many of the droids in recent Star Wars films. Scanlan explains how he and his team start planning a new droid. First, they look at common everyday devices, from toasters to farm equipment. Then they include features of these objects in their fictional robot. “That way a droid is not so abstract and futuristic that we can’t relate to it,” he says.

Many of the droids in the movies aren’t what they seem. They’re actors in costume, puppets controlled by people off-screen, or computer animations. But some are real, working machines. One is called BB-8. Scanlan created the droid for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. That took a lot of trial and error. He and his team had to create a robot that works in real life just as it appears on-screen. BB-8 even goes with the movie’s stars on the red carpet for each film’s opening. The little droid isn’t so different from real robots being used today. Fictional robots change the way film characters work, interact, and explore. Real-life robots are doing the same for us.    

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FICTIONAL ROBOT: BB-8 is one of Star Wars’ robotic heroes.

SPACE-BOTS

BB-8 is classified as an “astromech”—a fictional class of utility robots, generally used as mechanics to maintain and fix spacecraft. As it turns out, robots are actually helping astronauts on real space missions too. NASA and car manufacturer General Motors developed Robonaut 2 (R2), a humanoid robot, or a robot that resembles a human being. It’s been working with astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) to make repairs and conduct experiments as the astronauts orbit Earth.

Although R2 looks like a person, it wasn’t made that way so astronauts could better relate to it. There’s actually a practical reason for its design, explains Kimberly Hambuchen, a robotics engineer at NASA. Everything on the ISS was created with human astronauts in mind. It’s necessary for a robot to be physically similar to a person so it can perform some of the same duties. “Other robots in space, like rovers on Mars, don’t look like humans because they’re not in human environments,” says Hambuchen.

One of R2’s most important features is its hands. They’re the same size and shape as a person’s so that it can grip the same tools as astronauts. For instance, it can hold an instrument that takes measurements of air quality aboard the ISS. And since R2 doesn’t breathe, it doesn’t interfere with readings the way a person’s breath could.

In the future, Hambuchen says, robots like R2 could perform dangerous jobs so astronauts don’t have to. For example, they could work on their own to make external repairs to spacecraft.

BB-8 is an “astromech.” That’s a fictional class of useful robots. They usually work as mechanics to maintain and fix spacecraft. But robots are helping astronauts on real space missions too. NASA and car manufacturer General Motors developed Robonaut 2 (R2). It’s a humanoid robot, or a robot that looks like a human being. It’s been working with astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS). The robot makes repairs and runs experiments as the astronauts orbit Earth.

R2 was made to look like a person. But that isn’t so astronauts could relate to it better. There’s a useful reason for its design, explains Kimberly Hambuchen. She’s a robotics engineer at NASA. Everything on the ISS was made with human astronauts in mind. A robot needs to be like a person physically so it can do some of the same jobs. “Other robots in space, like rovers on Mars, don’t look like humans because they’re not in human environments,” says Hambuchen.

One of R2’s most important features is its hands. They’re the same size and shape as a person’s. That way, it can hold the same tools as astronauts. For instance, one device measures air quality aboard the ISS. R2 can hold that device, and R2 doesn’t breathe. So it doesn’t affect readings, like a person’s breath could.

In the future, robots like R2 could do dangerous jobs, Hambuchen says. Then astronauts won’t have to. For example, robots could go outside the spacecraft to make repairs on their own. 

©LUCASFILM LTD. & TM. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. (TRASH COMPACTOR); LUCASFILM LTD VIA SPORTSPHOTO/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO (R2D2)

FICTIONAL ROBOT: Droids saved human and Wookie heroes from being squashed in a trash compactor.

RESCUE ROBOTS

Droids have helped Star Wars heroes get out of some major jams. For example, R2-D2 once saved Luke and his friends Chewbacca, Han, and Leia aboard the evil Empire’s planet-destroying Death Star. The humans were trapped inside a trash compactor and nearly squished.

Robots help out on Earth too. Emergency workers use search-and-rescue robots to conduct surveillance after a natural or human-made disaster. The machines can enter areas too dangerous for people to explore. For instance, a robot was used to assess damage to the Fukushima nuclear reactor in Japan. The power plant suffered an explosion following a tsunami in 2011.

“Robots can also be designed to fit into spaces people and conventional machinery cannot go,” says Howie Choset, a roboticist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. That allows them to travel through cramped, collapsed structures to look for survivors of an earthquake or bomb blast.

Choset has developed several small robots, including snake-like ones that can wriggle through tight spots. Another one of his robots resembles a cross between a spider and a crab. It balances on multiple legs as it walks over rubble.

Star Wars heroes have gotten into some major jams. Droids have helped them get out. For example, Luke and his friends Chewbacca, Han, and Leia were on the evil Empire’s planet-destroying Death Star. They were trapped inside a trash compactor. They almost got crushed, but R2-D2 saved them.

Robots help out on Earth too. Emergency workers use search-and-rescue robots after a natural or human-made disaster. Some areas are too dangerous for people to enter. So the machines go in and explore. For example, a tsunami hit the Fukushima nuclear reactor in Japan in 2011. The power plant suffered an explosion. A robot went inside to look for damage.

“Robots can also be designed to fit into spaces people and conventional machinery cannot go,” says Howie Choset. He’s a roboticist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. These robots can travel through tight, collapsed structures. After an earthquake or bomb blast, they can look for survivors.

Choset has developed several small robots. Some are like snakes and can slip through tight spots. Another one looks like a cross between a spider and a crab. It balances on several legs and walks over rubble.

LUCASFILM LTD VIA F ARCHIVE/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

FICTIONAL ROBOT: Human characters in Star Wars have a strong connection with the droid C-3PO.

COMPUTERIZED COMPANIONS

Scanlan, the Star Wars designer, believes that people have an emotional connection to the droids from the movies because designers give the bots anthropomorphic, or human-like, characteristics. “They’re full of personality, like clever children who are quite mischievous,” he says.

People develop similar connections when they interact with real-world robots that resemble animals. One example is Aibo. The technology company Sony created the robo-dog to act as a human companion, just like a real pet. Gail Melson, a professor of psychology at Purdue University in Indiana, discovered that children could easily relate to the robot because of its pup-like features.

“We found that children treated Aibo not so much as a machine but as an interactive partner,” she says. Although the kids knew they were playing with a robot, they felt a connection because the robot looked and acted like a real dog. And like a real pet, the kids felt a responsibility toward Aibo, saying it wouldn’t be right to get rid of the machine if they got bored with it.

Personal robots aren’t being designed just as emotional companions. Some help their owners with physical tasks. Henny Admoni, another roboticist from Carnegie Mellon, develops assistive robots. They can grasp and manipulate objects to help people who have difficulties performing everyday tasks like drinking from a cup, eating a meal, and getting dressed. “Robots don’t get tired and can be infinitely patient,” says Admoni. “They allow people with disabilities to be more independent.”

People have an emotional connection to the movie droids. Scanlan, the Star Wars designer, believes that’s because designers give the robots anthropomorphic, or human-like, characteristics. “They’re full of personality, like clever children who are quite mischievous,” he says.

People also develop emotional connections with real-world robots that seem like animals. One example is Aibo. The technology company Sony created this robo-dog. It acts as a human companion, just like a real pet. Gail Melson is a professor of psychology at Purdue University in Indiana. She found that children could easily relate to the robot. That’s because of its dog-like features.

“We found that children treated Aibo not so much as a machine but as an interactive partner,” she says. The kids knew they were playing with a robot. But they felt a connection because it looked and acted like a real dog. And the kids felt a responsibility toward Aibo, like a real pet. They said it wouldn’t be right to get rid of the machine if they got bored with it.

Personal robots aren’t just emotional companions. Some help their owners with physical tasks. Henny Admoni is another roboticist from Carnegie Mellon. She develops assistive robots. Some people have a hard time with everyday tasks like drinking from a cup, eating a meal, and getting dressed. Assistive robots can pick up and move objects to help them. “Robots don’t get tired and can be infinitely patient,” says Admoni. “They allow people with disabilities to be more independent.”

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FICTIONAL ROBOT: A robot surgeon helped replace Luke’s hand after Darth Vader cut it off.

ROBO-DOC

Throughout the Star Wars series, several characters have had their wounds tended to by medical robots. After Darth Vader cuts off Luke’s hand during a battle in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, it is replaced with a robotic version by a surgical robot called 2-1B. And at the end of The Force Awakens, the character Finn is cared for by a team of robots after nearly being killed during a battle with the villainous Kylo Ren.

In real life, robotic machines also help perform surgeries, enabling doctors to carry out much more complicated operations than they could on their own. “A surgical robot can reach places within the human body that conventional surgical tools cannot,” says Choset.

One of the most commonly used surgical robots is the da Vinci surgical system. A doctor uses controls to guide the robot’s arms, which hold tiny scalpels or scissors. Besides being able to maneuver into areas of the body a surgeon’s larger hands couldn’t reach, surgical robots also make smaller incisions, or cuts, allowing patients to heal faster.

During the Star Wars series, medical robots have treated several characters. Darth Vader cuts off Luke’s hand during a battle in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. A surgical robot called 2-1B replaces it with a robotic hand. And at the end of The Force Awakens, a team of robots cares for the character Finn. That’s after he was nearly killed in a battle with the evil Kylo Ren.

In real life, robotic machines also help with surgeries. That way, doctors can carry out much more difficult operations than they could on their own. “A surgical robot can reach places within the human body that conventional surgical tools cannot,” says Choset.

One of the most common surgical robots is the da Vinci surgical system. The robot’s arms hold tiny scalpels or scissors. A doctor uses controls to guide the arms. The robot can move into areas of the body that a surgeon’s larger hands couldn’t reach. Surgical robots also make smaller incisions, or cuts. That allows patients to heal faster.

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FICTIONAL ROBOTS: C-3PO and R2-D2 were bought to help out on Luke’s uncle’s farm.

MECHANICAL WORKERS

Star Wars hero Luke Skywalker wasn’t always a great lightsaber-wielding Jedi Master. He grew up on his aunt and uncle’s farm on the planet Tatooine. His uncle Owen purchased the droids C-3PO and R2-D2 to help on their farm.

On Earth, some farmers already use robotic tractors to harvest crops. These autonomous vehicles use sensors, like cameras and GPS, to navigate and scan for obstacles. However, most farms still rely on people to tend fields. “Crops often require a huge human workforce,” says George Kantor, a roboticist at Carnegie Mellon University who’s developing technology to help farmers. “The work is hot and dangerous, and there aren’t enough people willing to do these jobs—this is an opportunity for robotics.”

Kantor explains that, with the world’s population predicted to reach 9.8 billion by 2050, people will need to develop new technologies to improve harvest yields. That’s where his experimental FarmView system comes in. It consists of a flying drone, a mobile land robot, and stationary robots. Each has artificial intelligence—a computer’s ability to perform tasks normally associated with human intelligence. This type of programming allows the robots to survey large fields and identify the most robust plants much faster than a person could. The healthiest plants could then be selected to breed superior disease-resistant crops.

Just like on a farm, where work can be tedious and physically draining for humans, factories also rely on robots to perform tasks that are repetitive and dangerous. For instance, robots have long been used in car manufacturing plants to weld metal together or paint vehicles. Some might wonder if robots will someday completely replace people in the workforce, but Choset believes that’s unlikely to happen. As in the Star Wars universe, “robots are tools that people can use to do their jobs better,” he says.

Star Wars hero Luke Skywalker became a great Jedi Master. But he wasn’t always skilled with a lightsaber. He grew up on his aunt and uncle’s farm on the planet Tatooine. His uncle Owen bought the droids C-3PO and R2-D2 to help on their farm.

On Earth, some farmers already use robotic tractors to gather crops. These self-driving vehicles use sensors, like cameras and GPS. That’s how they find their way around. But people still tend fields on most farms. “Crops often require a huge human workforce,” says George Kantor. He’s a roboticist at Carnegie Mellon University, and he’s developing technology to help farmers. “The work is hot and dangerous, and there aren’t enough people willing to do these jobs—this is an opportunity for robotics.”

The world’s population is expected to reach 9.8 billion by 2050. Kantor explains that people will need to develop new technologies to help crops produce more. So he’s experimenting with a system called FarmView. It has a flying drone, a moving land robot, and robots that don’t move. Each has artificial intelligence. That’s a computer’s ability to perform tasks that normally involve human intelligence. This type of programming allows the robots to look at large fields and find the strongest plants. And they do it much faster than a person could. Then the healthiest plants could be used to breed better disease-resistant crops.

On a farm, work can be long, slow, and physically draining for humans. The same can be true at factories. So factories also use robots to handle tasks that are boring and dangerous. For example, robots have long been used in car manufacturing plants. They weld metal together or paint vehicles. 

Some people might worry: Will robots completely replace human workers someday? Choset believes that probably won’t happen. As in the Star Wars universe, “robots are tools that people can use to do their jobs better,” he says.   

DEFINING PROBLEMS: Think about a problem, and then describe a robot that could help solve it.

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