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Photo via Tony Dyson/R2-D2
Photo via Tony Dyson/R2-D2

There is likely no more famous – or beloved – robot than R2-D2. Along with partner C-3PO, both robots became so much more than sidekicks in the Star Wars films — they became central figures fans could relate to, emulate and adore.

Tony Dyson was charged with building the first R2-D2 ever and has had an illustrious career with robotics ever since. In addition to working on more films, he has also built robots for companies including Philips, Toshiba and Sony. And he continues to work on launching his own startup that will focus on search-and-rescue drones.

Dyson will speak at the We Robot conference at the University of Washington’s School of Law this Friday night at 7 p.m.  The event is free, but you must register to attend in advance. This marks the first time that the R2-D2 creator has spoken at the event.

We caught up with Dyson this week to talk about the future of robots, and why everyone needs a little R2-D2-like drone in their house. Here are edited excerpts from the chat.

Photo via Flickr/Chantal Harvey/Robotics Week Finland 2013
Photo via Flickr/Chantal Harvey/Robotics Week Finland 2013/Tony Dyson

How did you come to the R2-D2 project?

“I wanted to work in the film industry—that was basically it. I knew of the very big Pinewood Studios in England and tried there first, but of course didn’t get anywhere.

I didn’t give up. I knew one of the small studios, Bray Studios, did horror films and the Dracula films. I rang them for five days nonstop, and got lucky that I got past on the phone. I was told they had a new business starting called “special effects.” We had glass screens we had to paint, pyrotechnics, model-making, stunt work, makeup, a great big long list of special effects…that was my opportunity. I went down there when they were making Alien.

After that, they told me I should go to Pinewood…There was a Bond film I did some model work on, Moonraker, and I did the spacemen models on that. It was really my first job. That basically led back to Bray Studios, where they told me that Star Wars is going to come up. The method I was going to use to mold [the robots] was based on rocking horses. And because of my molding for rocking horses, they decided I would be the perfect person to take on the robots.

I made eight of them [R2-D2s], all doing different things. Some were remote-controlled, some computerized – they all had different functions. It was more based on special effects and not robotics specific. We’d get whatever was on the director’s list and achieve those qualifications, and that led to R2-D2.”

What were some of the design challenges to bring R2-D2 to life?

“Personality, of course. It was a joint project, no question about that. In this instance, it’s quite strange, but if I’d had (a) longer and a bigger budget, R2 could have been robotized. But we didn’t have that, and R2 couldn’t do all the things George Lucas wanted him to do.

So we used a small actor and put him inside R2. That was really the turning point — it influenced his personality. If I’d gone all the way — hydraulics, legs, springs, so he could bounce back and forth — I don’t think he would have had that childish personality. The actor brought that childish personality to R2-D2.”

What’s a fascinating unknown or little-known fact about R2-D2?

“The most ironic thing as the years went by, I was told I could never build another R2-D2. I had started a R2-D2 builders club, and I was told we couldn’t do the exact same sizes and dimensions.

The club was upset at first, but this time round, Disney is actually using two people from the builders club to help build R2-D2 for the new films. It’s fantastic now that Disney has bought the franchise that it can be bigger and definitely will not die. It’s an enormous investment to bring it back to the next generation. I believe there are another seven films coming out.”

Photo via imdb.com/Short Circuit's Johnny Five
Photo via imdb.com/Short Circuit’s Johnny Five

Is there a film/robot you wish you could have worked on and why?

“Johnny Five, the robot from Short Circuit. I thought that was an amazing robot. They build this fantastic scissors-type design so he could raise himself to 7- to 8-feet high, then bring himself very small again. A beautiful design.”

How do you see technology influencing robot designs going forward?

“I don’t think it’s a linear thing any more. We have been promised robots in the home for ages, from the ’90s to 2000s, and it’s been going on like that for quite a while now.

It’s happening now, in every area you can think of. I help STEM students interested in arts/engineering, and when they actually find out what you can learn in STEM and robotics they’re amazed. There are very few disciplines that can’t be used in robotics.

My specific interest is in small drones. I’m putting forward a new startup called Green Drones, drones that will help mankind. They will be all automated and go on search-and-rescue missions, say an avalanche, or take water out to survivors in the desert. Any time people are in need or stranded, drones can go and automatically save them.

It’s very important when it comes to drones to promote this positive side — and drones have a darker side, like the one that landed on White House lawn. Not cool. It’s important that we not keep pushing hobby ones or warfare ones, but start pushing ones that can help mankind.

A R2-D2 replica made of Legos at Legoland Florida.
A R2-D2 replica made of Legos at Legoland Florida.

What are the biggest issues facing robotics development today?

“It’s very difficult to say and depends on which area you’re in, but with the mobiles it’s pretty clear — battery power. I think the maximum time a drone can go is 40 minutes without changing the battery. My autonomous one will change its own battery. They will never have to be controlled — they will control themselves.”

How do you feel about modern perceptions of A.I. (Ex Machina, Avengers: Age of Ultron) in movies today, moving from the persona of the helpful, friendly R2-D2 to threatening robots?

“I’m more concerned about man’s use of robots than I am concerned about robots taking control.

Going back to small drones, they are unfortunately dangerous, and this is why the government is trying to give out licenses and being careful about where they’re allowed to fly. They’re concerned about the remote control, but you can make them autonomous.

I’m more concerned about the immediate than scientists telling an A.I. computer to design itself until it gets to the point that it doesn’t like us very much and decides to get rid of us.

At end of it, as we progress mentally and understanding our universe, we understand that we are also robots — free-running robots, but we are robots. We have DNA and basic programming skills, and we work within those frameworks, but we basically are a robot. We can also progress and destroy the world, so it would make sense that anything we would make would also have the possibility to do the same.

On the bright side, a little R2-D2-type drone in the home would be fantastic. A little drone companion that could talk to you and fly quite high in room, and could drop down in recharger bay and fly off again. It’s certainly feasible, and so much easier than having one that has to navigate all the objects and furniture and everything in the house.”

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