Disney’s 3D Printed Robot Steals the Show at IEEE IROS 2023 Conference

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At the intersection of imagination and cutting-edge technology, Disney Research has outdone itself once again. Using 3D printing, they unveiled a captivating child-size bipedal robot at the 2023 IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS) in Detroit. Fresh off its debut, the robot transitioned from conference floors to real-world excitement. Days later, three variations of this robot were wandering through Disneyland California’s Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, inspired by the BD-1 unit from the video game Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order.

Robot with 3D printed parts by Disney Research at a Detroit Tech conference. Image courtesy of Walt Disney Imagineering.

Primarily constructed from 3D printed parts, this robot aligns with a fresh patent Disney recently secured, titled “Design of Stylized Walking Gaits for Bipedal Robots,” hinting at a future where robots don’t merely walk but do so with personality, whether it’s a joyful stride or a sneaky tiptoe.

Led by Moritz Bächer, Associate Lab Director from Disney Research in Zurich, the team behind this latest innovation highlights the potential of combining modular hardware, learning software, and 3D printing in their latest robot creation. Progressing from the concept to the working prototype in under a year, the robot’s head is capable of a diverse range of movements—from looking around to tilting—and five-degree-of-freedom legs designed for dynamic balance.

Evan Ackerman of IEEE Spectrum reported from the presentation and revealed how Bächer and the team used “off-the-shelf actuators and 3D printed components” to create the robot. In an interview with Ackerman, the researchers emphasized that what’s important here is not the robot; it’s the process.

“The idea is that this is a platform that’s hardware agnostic,” says Bächer. “So if we wanted to add more legs, or add arms, or make an entirely new character with a completely different morphology, we can rapidly teach it new behaviors. The off-the-shelf actuators, the 3D-printed components, our adaptable reinforcement-learning framework—these can all be applied to robots that are widely different in how they look and move. This robot is a promising first step on that journey.”

An official video posted by Walt Disney Imagineering captures the robot’s captivating interactions with R&D Imagineer Georg Wiedebach. Here, it’s not just about the movements but the emotional expressions and character-like details that have captivated social media audiences. A deep dive into the comments shows audiences are entirely fascinated by the charming new character. The Imagineering post captures this idea, “Designing a bipedal robotic character with impeccable balance is commendable. But when you think Disney, these characters don’t just walk—they strut, prance, saunter, or meander.”

Just days after the prototype’s reveal, three similar robots with a Star Wars design came alive at Disneyland’s Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. These robots resembled BD-1, the droid from the 2019 video game Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order. BD-1, or Buddy Droid 1, plays a pivotal role, assisting the game’s protagonist, Cal Kestis—a young Jedi Padawan navigating a world turnover after the infamous Order 66.

New robots at Disneyland’s Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. Image courtesy of Walt Disney Imagineering.

Disney Imagineering explained these new Star Wars characters: “Developed by the galaxy’s brightest minds, the latest free-roaming robotic characters were being tested by Imagineers in Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland Resort yesterday. A part of Disney’s robotic character pipeline, Imagineers have teamed-up with animators to design characters capable of great balance and highly expressive motions.”

Ensuring seamless communication for these droids, Glad Enterprise Tech Wireless lent its expertise in channel planning/segregation. The robots, chirping away in their language, have drawn much attention, primarily due to their undeniable cuteness.

New robots at Disneyland’s Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. Image courtesy of Walt Disney Imagineering.

Disney’s innovative strides in robotics stretch far and wide. Earlier this year, at the SXSW conference in Texas, a roller-skating robot designed after Judy Hopps, the beloved main character from the animated hit Zootopia, dazzled audiences. With Project Exo, which has been in development for about two years, the company’s research and development team is trying to bring Disney’s biggest characters to life at its theme parks. Disney California Adventure visitors got a chance to mingle with a life-sized Hulk, a “marvel” developed through this project. They’ve even explored the world of fairies, experimenting with life-sized Tinker Bell technology. With each creation, the central theme remains a rich infusion of realism and interactivity that defines Disney’s animatronics.

New robots at Disneyland’s Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. Image courtesy of Walt Disney Imagineering.

Disney’s bold expansion into the Star Wars universe has led to an ever-expanding TV realm, although some of its series on Disney+ have faced financial challenges. Additionally, Disney recently decided to close its immersive Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser hotel just a year after its grand opening. With a price tag of $1,200 per person per night, it soon became an out-of-reach experience for many fans. However, projects like these robots demonstrate the endless possibilities of innovation and offer a unique upgrade to the park experience. Inside Disneyland’s Galaxy’s Edge, these droids become more than metal and wires. They transform into stories, adventures, and cherished memories for visitors. With each new fusion of 3D printing and robotics, Disney gently weaves the magic of tomorrow.

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