Birmingham MCM, MOT, and Tier 2.

This weekend was R2’s first official outing with the UK R2 Builders. We were invited to attend Birmingham MCM Comic Con with the UK Garrison, an arm of the 501st cosplay group.

I loaded R2 into the car on Friday after work, and drove down to a hotel near the Birmingham NEC. Due to late booking of the hotel, I wasn’t really left much choice, and it showed.  Saturday was an early start so I tried for an early night so I was all set for a 7am start. That didn’t go quite to plan, nor did the hotel room shower. Still, fun and games at the hotel were just a blip on what promised to be a great weekend.

After driving round and getting lost in the maze that is the NEC, I finally saw a few other builders who were also trying to figure out where to go and its always better to be lost in a group than on your own.

Eventually we did find where to park, and where we were unloading and after a quick registration we started getting the droids into the building and set up on our stand.

First order of business was to get my droid a pass on his MOT. To be allowed at official events, and to get some Public Liability Insurance (you know, just incase I ‘accidentally’ run over a little darling who is poking R2 too much), R2 has to pass a club MOT and I have to show I can drive him. Its a really good idea, and adds a great level of professionalism to the whole event.

Thankfully, R2 passed, which meant he was free to roam around and entertain.

The Saturday of the event was extremely busy, with so many extra people showing up that we pretty much didn’t leave the stand. Not only that, but the UK Garrison couldn’t do their usual parade due to safety worries. Still, it didn’t really put a damper on things as people were constantly coming to the stand and being entertained by the droids.

It really is fantastic seeing the interactions that people of all ages have with R2. He isn’t just a remote controlled robot, he is an actual person to a lot of them, and I’m less of a driver and more of a puppeteer.

Then there are the Jawas. Damn things get everywhere!

Only kidding, the UK Garrison have a few Jawas in their midst, and they certainly get into character. It was so much fun getting R2 to play along with them and everyone around absolutely loved it. Even better when their wrangler started jangling keys to distract them and move them along. Bringing out the play in cosplay.

The day passed all too quickly, and we were soon packing up for the day and making our way back to our hotels. A few of us went out for a meal that night at a local hotel, and surprisingly the conversation wasn’t just about droids. Well, not quite anyway.

Another attempt at an early night and a bit more sleep was had, ready for a not quite so early morning on Sunday. The doors were opened for us at about 8:30am, and we wandered in to make sure the droids hadn’t got out over night.

Sunday was a little bit quieter, so a few of us managed to roam about the convention a bit more. I took R2 out on a number of jaunts through the day along the concourse infront of the halls where MCM was running. It was a great area to roll around, lots of people but not as packed as it was around the stalls and other areas.

It did take quite a long time to get from one end to the other, not because of the distance but because he was getting stopped every meter or so for photos, or to chat with me about him. R2 really does like his picture taken, much more so than I do.

We had a few more encounters with the Jawas, and some sneaky avoiding of imperial troops looking for droids but I managed to convince them that these weren’t the ones they were looking for. There was also a group of large feline types who seemed to take a great interest in R2 and got a little curious.

The UK Garrison do a troop on each day if possible, and thankfully they were able to do one on Sunday, not only that but R2 was allowed to join in. At 2pm sharp, we waited outside the UKG changing room, ready to tag onto the end of the parade. There were a lot of the UKG there, I thought the line coming out was never going to end, but it eventually did and R2 joined in. We did a basic loop of the event which took about 20 minutes, it was great fun even for someone like me who doesn’t like to be in the center of attention. Of course, R2 takes a lot of it off me.

So, you’d think that was the highlight of the weekend? Nope, as the event was drawing to an end, I noticed a load of rebel pilots gathering around at the stand next to us. Next thing I know, Anthony Daniels asked if he could borrow my droid for a photo shoot. Not really going to say no now, am I? He stuck around afterwards too and had a few other photos with some of the other droids too.

Sadly, the event drew to an end. We were rather tired by this point, me, the other builders, and even poor R2’s battery was starting to show some signs of tiredness. R2 got loaded back into my car (I really need a van!), and I set off on the 2 1/2 hour drive home. A quick take out once I was in, and then bed became too tempting.

Now that I’ve recovered however, I’m planning the next steps with R2. As well as the MOT to get insurance coverage, there is also a tier 2 option. Tier 2 means that your droid is effectively screen ready (maybe not screen accurate, R2 changes too much between the films and even between scenes in the same film!) and can be used in official Lucas/Disney functions.

This is another great thing about the R2 Builders club, we have tight bonds with Lucasfilm, and now Disney, and occasionally get asked to do some official events. Anyone who is active in the club and has a tier 2 droid can get the chance to do one of these events.

To this end, there is now a long list of issues on my github page that needs sorting to get tier 2 approval. After a weekend with other droids, and seeing what is possible, it has pushed my motivation up a level to improve the droid, and also given me direction. I’m going to stop going for the fancy stuff, and instead concentrate on getting R2 as solid as possible, and looking the part.

Python code to control an R2D2 (or other astromech) from a Raspberry Pi over i2c
Milestone: Tier 2
Issues: 2 open, 11 closed.

Make R2 more solid for shows, and aim for that Tier 2 classification (ready for LucasFilm)

So all in all, it was a really fun weekend. I don’t think the smile left my face during the entire event. I really can’t wait for the next big event with the builders.

R2 ventures out

The day finally arrived. I was going to show off R2 to the public. Up until this point, he’d not been out of the garage and only had a handful of visitors (including a few local kids… ‘have you got an R2D2 in your garage?!). I was a little nervous.

Transport

I’d only arrived home at about midnight the night before after having left a convention early (unheard of! Miss the survivors photo! What?!), not to mention I’d been in the convention hotel for 10 days by that point. After contacting the organiser of Morecambe Comic Con, he had said I could get there early to avoid the crowds and find a safe spot for R2. This meant being up, ready, loaded, and in Morecambe by 9am! One slight issue, well many issues with that time, but the main one being I hadn’t actually tried to load R2 into my car at all yet. I knew from measurements that he wouldn’t fit in in three legged mode, which was one of the reasons I’d built his sled. I also knew that the sled made it nice and easy to get him stood up in two leg mode. So all that was left was to see if the sled would hold up and get him into the car.

Success, R2D2 is in the car!
Success!

He fitted. Was a two person job unfortunately, but I have a few ideas to make it easier, and hopefully turn it into a single person job for the next event.

Arrival

I managed to get to The Platform in Morecambe at about 8:55am, and hunted down the organiser. Thankfully Joy had followed me down, so helped me unload R2 infront of the Platform. Switching him from two leg mode to three leg isn’t too hard, 8 nuts to tighten on the shoulders, and some ankle locks to put in place on the feet. Unfortunately I had forgotten the spanner to tighten the nuts so had to get them as tight as possible by hand. Then came the fun of getting him in the building. The pavement surface outside was not conducive to operating an astromech. For something supposedly highly advanced, he doesn’t like to run on anything but a smooth surface. So, with a bit of lifting and a bit of dragging R2 entered the building. Thankfully once inside the floor was nice and smooth, perfect for R2 to have a wander.

R2D2 waiting for the crowds to turn up.As I brought him in and scouted out the place, I encountered a few handling problems. It appeared that I’d lost one of the shims from a foot which meant one of his drive wheels wasn’t getting the grip it should. This led to him veering off to the right all the time and at one point he encountered a stall and destroyed a lego figure! After apologising profusely, I found a corner to sit him in and waited for the crowds to appear.

Time for the fun

R2D2 found a nice place to stand.

Right about 10am, the doors opened for early access and I decided to move to the now closed fire escape. Up to this point, it had been open for people to bring their wares in for the stalls. Now it was a nice empty space to place R2.
Slowly the place started to fill up and R2 had his first visitors. The day started to just fly by after that. I just loved the reactions he was getting from people of all ages. It was so enjoyable to make people jump a little when he moved over to them, and I slowly got used to the controls and being able to give him a little personality. Up to this point, I’d only had a tiny space in my garage to move him, now I had a much larger area and could try a few different things. Kids seemed to love him, sometimes a little too much, but I’d already decided to work on the premise that if they managed to break something then I need to make it stronger. R2 should be a bit interactive. Tho there were times when I wished I had the cattle prod attachment on him. He got plenty of tugs on the HPs, and a few extra spins of the dome, and I managed not to trap any inquisitive fingers in the dome panels when they opened. One little girl however didn’t like him waving at her with a utility arm. I loved some of the cosplay at the event too, there were some fantastic costumes on show, including a friend of mine who came as Kylo Ren and hung around for pictures.

R2D2 playing nicely with Kylo
R2D2 playing nicely with Kylo

I tried to stay out of the way as much as possible as it breaks the magic if they see the wizard behind the curtain, or rather the guy holding the controller. When I was spotted, quite a few people were amused at the fact I was using a standard PS3 controller to operate him. A few people wanted to know how he worked, or more details about the build, which I was more than happy to supply. Possibly a bit too much information was given at times, but they were polite enough to keep smiling whilst I talked.

At one point, I was even interviewed by a reporter from the local newspaper. She asked a few questions and took a short video of R2 doing some spins, and uploaded it to their facebook page. The main site had an article released today, and I was mentioned and quoted in it.

I had a few friends come and visit me too, after all I had been talking about R2 so much over the last few years they wanted to actually come and see what I had been wittering on about. I’d like to apologise now for the nonstop talk of R2. Most who saw him agreed it was a worthwhile project!

Oh No, breakage!

Trying to hire R2D2 as an Auror
Trying to hire R2D2 as an Auror

There was an issue with the main dome drive, which I gave up trying to fix towards the end of the day. Thankfully noone seemed to notice that he wasn’t turning his head much. I was pleasantly surprised by the battery, which after a full day of entertaining was only just down to below half capacity. Also, taking him back to the car over the rough surface outside shook a few parts off him finally. I knew something would end up falling off, but they held on all day at least!

R2D2 gets the ladies...
R2D2 gets the ladies…

Conclusion

Already hoping to be at another event on Star Wars day, a May the Fourth event at Southport Vue cinema. Just need to get his MOT and my driving test, so he can be an official Builders Club droid. I’ll should have the door panels finished for the next event too.

I set a deadline!

This year has been a bit busy so far, and in February I realised I only had something like three free weekends to get R2 ready for his first outing, Morecambe Comic Con, a deadline I was determined to keep. Between conventions, work trips, and more conventions (including two on back to back weekends), I knew I had a lot of work to do in a short time. Thankfully, with a bit of organisation and a few late nights I finally managed to get him to a showable state. Not quite to the level I wanted, but close enough.

I utilised Github’s issue and project management tools to help organise myself, putting issues in as todo items, as well as logging things that I found were wrong as I went along. This actually helped quite a bit, and I’m going to endeavour to keep using it. I slowly managed to close off some of the items, and R2 was getting more and more complete. I managed to get the electronics and code to a level where it was stable and he wasn’t too fast to react. Had a few dicey moments when direction changes at high speed made him teeter on the edge of doing a faceplant.

And more bits were added, I got his skirt installed finally, after having bought it nearly a year ago. This however involved some fairly major dismantling of R2, which in turn meant I had to finally get the sled finished for him. Overall, I’m quite pleased with the sled, and it allowed me to lay him down gently and take his legs off to get into the base of the frame.

With the skirt all painted and in place, it was time to test the electronics with his new battery. Up to this point I’d been using a couple of SLA batteries, but these were heavy and didn’t fit in properly. Not to mention they were very low capacity. Over the last year I had been collecting old laptop batteries from various sources, and stripping them down to get the 18650 cells out of them. Once I’d tested the cells and selected the decent ones, I made a new battery pack (6s11p) which should provide 24V, with about 22Ah of capacity. A bit of metal folding and riveting, and R2 also had a battery box.

A quick reassembly, and he was back on all three wheels, ready for the final touches. However, time was getting very short indeed by this point. I had one weekend and a few evenings to get the panels on the doors, and to sort out a few other annoying little details. I’d had the idea of using sheet steel for the doors, but had trouble putting the correct curve into the metal to make it sit nicely in the door areas. If I can get this right, then the doors can be attached easily with magnets to the hinge areas, letting me remove them so I can still get the skin off if needs be. Without the right curve tho, this just didn’t work and looked rather poor. Unfortunately, with no time left I simple hot glued them in place, so that at least there was something there. There wasn’t even enough time to paint one of the panels, so was left bare. 

On my last evening to work on him, I made the decision to change the dome drive mechanism. I’d got a new, more powerful motor, but this gave me troubles with the friction drive in that the rubber ring was coming off. I did have a dome gear set, and decided to try that out (once I’d found it. The garage is a bit untidy). Turned out this was a bad idea. The motor gear is only a thin piece of aluminium, and you have to get it exactly in line with the equally thin main gear. With more time (and the correct cad file) I’ll laser cut a much thicker motor gear out of acrylic. This will make it both easier to mesh the two gears, and also a little quieter hopefully.

So, at about 1am I called him finished and went to bed. I was due to set off to a convention the next day in London. To make it even more complicated, there was another convention the weekend after in the same hotel. Rather than drive home, just to drive back again a couple of days later, I opted to stay down in London. I would’ve got another couple of evenings to do more work, but in the end I decided it was the better option.

All I had left to do was get to the convention