‘Some People Knit, Some People Solder’ in the Droid-Building Community

Photo by Jessica Clary
Photo by Jessica Clary

Sunday afternoon’s session with the Star Wars droid-builders in the “Building R2D2, BB-8 & Star Wars Droids” at the Marriott brought builders, designers, and engineers together to talk tech about all the materials, electronics, and more in the world-wide droid-building community. Builders Christina Cato, Matt Hobbes, Steve Morgan, Doug Dixon, Rob Saey, and David Ferreira brought their droid creations for show-and-tell with a packed crowd.

To get started, Cato answered the top three questions for builders: “Can I build one?” The panel was overwhelming in their answer: Yes, you can. Cato explained that even if you don’t know everything when you start, “you’re going to get a good skill set by the end of it.” Dixon agreed: “The whole point is to learn how to do it.” Ferreira added that through the support of the droid community, builders can learn to do anything.

The second most popular question to builders, “Do you sell kits?” earned a resounding no from all the panelists. Not only does it break their agreements with the film studios, Cato explained, it’s also against the ethos of the building community. Ferreira explained that while they don’t sell kits or droids, they do share plans and designs online, absolutely free, in the droid-building communities astromech.net, BB8Builders.club, and MouseDroidBuilders.club, which cover the three most popular droids to build. Builders also sell parts on these communities, which fit their exacting standards, so that any part built in the community will fit on any droid anyone builds.

“How much does it cost?” is the third question, and that one doesn’t have a clear answer. Cato explained, it’s how much you want to spend. She explained that you can do a static R2 for less than $500, but Ferreira added that, if you’re going to innovate and take on a challenge, really, the sky’s the limit.

Around the world, R2 is the most popular droid to build, and there are more than 500 R2 units out there. Dixon, who joined the R2 club when it started in 1999, has been working on his R2 for 12 years. The droids are never really finished, as there are always new ideas and technology that comes along to be used. For example, most R2 units used surplus Razor Scooter motors, which could be purchased for about $20. They weren’t very powerful though, and he described that they were bad on carpet, “like driving through marshmallows.” A few years ago, the community discovered electronic bicycle hub motors, which were a lot more powerful, lightweight and had much better battery life, so Dixon upgraded his R2.

The BB-8 community is newer, but the panelists explained it started pretty much the minute that builders saw the first trailer for The Force Awakens. Ferreira called it “the mystery ball,” and trying to figure out how it worked was a lot of thinking. Eventually, it all clicked, “It’s an axel drive!” Once they figured that out, the community exploded, and there are almost 30 BB-8s rolling around the world.

Club droids make appearances all over the world, popping up at official Star Wars events, red carpets and more, and builders from the club are now actually producing droids for Episodes 7 and 8. Saey added, “One of the best resources is other people’s droids.”

The best advice for new builders is to do research and figure out what they want to do before they start collecting parts. Dixon warned that people without a clear idea of what they’ll do end up with a garage full of pieces that won’t work together. Cato agreed, explaining that she researched her build for about a year before she even started on the first piece.

To close, Cato said that building your droid should be enjoyable, something to look forward to and unwind when you get home from work. “Some people knit,” she said. “Some people solder.”

Author of the article

Jessica spends her days advising college radio, magazine and newspaper staffs, and balances the rest of her time binge-watching TV and binge-reading nonfiction.