'Star Wars' Science: How Would BB-8 Work?
With the latest installment of the film franchise coming to theaters this month, UA researcher Wolfgang Fink explores the possibility of the droid BB-8 existing in real life.

By Emily Litvack, UA Office for Research and Discovery
Dec. 9, 2015

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(Illustration by Gianna Biocca/Office for Research and Discovery)

The real star of the upcoming "Star Wars" movie may not be a human or a Wookie. Instead, it may be a round, 2-foot-tall astromech droid named BB-8.

It may look great on the screen, but could BB-8 exist in real life?

University of Arizona researcher Wolfgang Fink would know, as an expert in artificially intelligent Mars rovers — and as an unabashed "Star Wars" fan.

Fink, who spends an extraordinary amount of time around robots, has done his share of thinking about the astromech droids seen in the franchise. And with J.J. Abrams' "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" opening in theaters on Dec. 18, Fink is focused on BB-8.

Compared to that of R2-D2 and C-3PO from previous "Star Wars" incarnations, the design of BB-8 has "a striking advantage," Fink says.

"R2-D2 is on three legs and rolls around, so the challenge there would be if you have rugged terrain. Now, of course, C-3PO is a humanoid robot and can climb just like we do," he says.

Fink is an associate professor of electrical, computer and biomedical engineering at the UA, as well as the Keonjian Endowed Chair in Microelectronics. In his lab, he designs and builds artificially intelligent, autonomous Mars rovers. But as he reflects on his love of "Star Wars" in an intentionally dim office, he wields a crimson-red light saber that vacillates between a dull hum and a piercing whoosh as he waves it left to right.

"I grew up on the original ‘Star Wars,'" Fink says. "It started out as this space fairytale, really, and decades later I'm now the proud owner of this light saber. It's not just a movie to me."

BB-8's soccer-ball-like body is a smart choice, according to Fink, and a natural progression from its predecessors. By comparison, he explains, BB-8's spherical, minimalistic body makes it a good candidate for covering rugged terrain and swimming, assuming it's light enough. And, he says, "with fewer moving parts, there's less that can be broken."

Thumbing through a list of them, he adds, "Plus, spherical robots exist in real life." One such robot, GroundBot, was built to survey the types of terrain where a droid such as R2-D2 might fail: mud, sand and water.

Much like Luke Skywalker's sassy confidant, R2-D2, and the neurotic, courtly C-3PO before it, BB-8 will have a personality all its own. Fink, who algorithmically instills the personality trait of curiosity into his own robots, believes this is fundamental: "Over the next few decades, robots will become an integral part of society. If robots have personalities, it's a lot easier to bridge the gap between us as humans and them as machines. It's not just a block of steel or a foreign object anymore."

But for all of its triumphs, Fink does see room for improvement on BB-8.

With such a smooth surface, BB-8 would have a tough time rolling uphill. At risk of looking slightly less sleek, adding a layer of texturized material, such as rubber car tires, would go a long way in terms of traction.

Fink also would consider adding a gyroscope — a spinning wheel that resists changes in direction — to help stabilize the droid's movement.

Then, there's BB-8's "head." Although it lends itself to adorability, the head presents a challenge. If Fink were tasked to build a droid with a head like BB-8's, he might deal with it in one of two ways. The first, creating a barbell-like body with the head attached to the top via a steel bar through the middle, is limiting. It would allow the robot to move forward and backward, but not side to side. The second relies on a group of mobile, attracting and repelling, heavy-duty magnets inside both the head and the body to cling to one another as BB-8 moves. In this design, Fink says, the head would be able to control the movement of the body in any direction.

Above is an illustration of BB-8 rolling on flat, sandy ground. A cutaway of the droid's insides shows a group of mobile, attracting and repelling, heavy-duty magnets. These magnets keep the body and head attached to each other.

Regardless, Fink appreciates the ingenuity of "Star Wars."

"I'm a total fan," he says. "'Star Wars' has always been decades ahead of its time, and we're just catching up with robotics to make similar things happen. In some ways, it actually leads and inspires what is to come, and in that sense, it's not even science fiction — it's science fact-ion."

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Check out the complete "Star Wars" Science series at the Office for Research and Discovery site.


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Wolfgang Fink

UA College of Engineering