Last month, we featured a working BB-8 droid created by PatchBOTS, a new YouTube channel focused on creating movie-accurate props and robots. We caught up with PatchBOTS founder Patrick Stefanski to talk about creating his rolling, remote-controlled BB-8 droid and what he has planned next!
Outer Places: Tell me a bit about yourself and PatchBOTS—what got you started on this project?
Patrick: PatchBOTs (Patrick’s Robots) really grew out of my day job as a 3D illustrator. I’ve been a freelance 3D artist for about 7 years since quitting my full-time job in the same field. Corporate work is kind of my bread and butter (store design renderings, merchandising, product renderings), but I get a lot of cool jobs that push me out of my comfort zone…For example, Air Hogs got in touch with me last year about doing the packaging art for their Star Wars toy line. This was like a dream come true for me, but creating models of spaceships and speederbikes and TIE fighters is something I had never done before, let alone doing it for one of the largest audiences I can imagine.
All this variety of work has really kept my 3D modeling on point, so when desktop 3D printers became a feasible thing I dived right on it. The idea of being able to model something and then print a physical copy was really appealing. However, when I started getting into it I quickly found printing little plastic knick-knacks got boring really fast, and functional prints to fix things around the house (which was how I sold the purchase to my wife) were few and far between. After 6 months the novelty wore off and the printer kind of just sat there collecting dust, which always made me feel bad. There was so much potential in this little machine, but I never found a purpose that would be both fun and worthwhile.
OP: After taking a look at your build blog, I saw some of the materials and components you used to build BB-8. How did you create your blueprints for the droid? Did you find them, or did you have to create them from scratch?
Patrick: When I first saw the teaser trailer [for The Force Awakens] my thought was “Oh, a CGI droid.” But then there was the Star Wars Celebration 2015, where they rolled out a WORKING BB-8! I was blown away. This got me super interested in how that was done. I started doing some research and found the BB-8 Builder’s Club. At the time I joined it had about 800 members but now has over 15,000. There are a lot of casual observers, but a lot of builders who have completed droids and a lot more on their way. Some BB-8s have varying paint jobs and color schemes, some are driving, some are static. There truly are no two droids that are built exactly the same because each builder adds their own ideas and their own personal touch.
At the core of these designs are the ‘club files’. The club files are the official 3D files released by the admins which anyone can download to build a BB-8 for free. They are the standard by which most droids are designed. My droid is filled with a mix of custom parts, club parts and modified club parts. This unspoken “you share your files and I’ll share mine” dynamic pioneered by the release of the free club files has led to amazing community of open source engineering and design which is very rare nowadays.
OP: Tell me about the way BB-8 moves—how did you create the internal mechanism to let the robot roll?
Patrick: In the beginning, there were two main ideas for how to make him drive: “hamster wheel” style, which is basically a robot inside a ball moving the ball, and a “single axle” style, which is like a wheel or a pendulum inside a ball. I went with the latter. There is an amazing builder on YouTube named James Bruton—he really pioneered the single axis-style droid and made a whole video series about it. I watched all those videos a million times and ultimately followed his design for my internal structures.
To sum up the basic drive mechanism: within the ball exists a 20″ plastic wheel. This is where the main front-to-back motion of the droid comes from. That 20″ wheel is driven by a windshield wiper motor from a 1997 Dodge Ram. You wouldn’t think it, but windshield wipers have incredibly torque-y motors. Being able to move all that snow off your windshield from such a far leverage point takes a lot of power, and I harnessed that power to move a 70 lb ball dressed up like BB-8.
OP: What was the hardest part about building the robot? Any funny/troubling incidents while making it?
Patrick: The head is by far the trickiest part of the whole thing. It’s held on with magnets. Really strong, finger-crushing magnets. You have to find this perfect balance of “strong enough to hold the head on, weak enough to allow it move smoothly without pulling down on it too hard.” I was smart enough to build a test head, and thank god I did, because my head hit the ground about 8 dozen times while testing.
OP: Tell me a bit about what you plan to do with PatchBOTS for the future.
Patrick: I have a few goals with this YouTube channel. One is to create projects like BB-8 and Chopper. I consider them “long builds” which I plan to document as well as possible and link all my resources and share all parts in hopes that someone can follow along and build the droid exactly as I did.
A second goal of my channel is fill a noticeable void in the robotics world: if you want to start doing robotics, you will find a million beginner tutorials, and if you want to do some really advanced stuff you can find people talking about it. However, there is a huge gap of education at the intermediate level. For example, My BB-8 droid is controlled by remote control via Bluetooth. Finding a tutorial on how to pair two blue tooth modules was a huge task. I had to combine the steps of about 4 different videos to get the end result. I plan to release a series of “functional intermediate tutorial videos.”
I plan to keep everything free of charge as far as my files go, and make money for the channel through Amazon Associate links and maybe a future Patreon campaign.
You can check out the official PatchBOTS YouTube channel here to watch more videos!