If you have attended a pop culture convention, chances are that you have run into R2-D2. Maybe you have seen several R2s rolling around the show floor as convention-goers stop to take photos or video. On Sunday afternoon at Stan Lee's Comikaze, one of those astromech droids busted out the moves to “Gundam Style.” The crowd gathered in a semi-circle, as though they were watching the best dancer at prom. R2-D2 can cut a rug.
That particular droid was built by Gene Arena, an L.A.-based “maintenance guy” whose skills with tools and knack for problem-solving led him to building R2-D2s in his spare time. Arena is a member of the R2-D2 Builders Club, as are a bunch of other people responsible for building robots based on the famed Star Wars character.
Arena got his start as part of the 501st, the well-known group of Star Wars costumers. “After a while, I got kind of burnt out,” he says. That's when he started seeing people with their R2 units. Arena joined the Builders Club and got to work.
“It was a little scary,” Arena says of his first attempt to build a droid. That's where the club comes in handy. Other builders are available to give advice on the forums and the locals — he estimates about 100 in the Los Angeles area — will meet up for “builders day,” where they learn from each other as they work. It took Arena two years to build his first R2-D2. The second one, which was on display at the convention, required two-and-a-half years to get into shape. That's because he added lots of “bells and whistles” to the piece. There are LEDs that light up on the edge of this R2-D2's dome top. That and the sounds are triggered by a controller that he also built.
Not all R2-D2 bots are alike. Some are given a weathered appearance to make it look like an older droid. One of the pieces here is actually a stroller. Still, some R2-D2 builders found another robot interest that has nothing to do with Star Wars.
In 2007, with news that a movie called Wall-E was on the horizon, one member of the R2-D2 group joked that they should start a Wall-E Builders Club. When he built the body, and other members built the head, the club became a reality.
Michael McMaster is a citrus farmer from Central California who handled the track drive for Wall-E. “I said, I wouldn't want to build one unless I could drive it,” he recalls. It took three years for McMaster to build his portion of the robot, which involved making molds to create rubber treads. Their goal was to ensure that Wall-E moved the same way the character does in the film and that was a tricky process. The head is actually made from foamboard and paper in order to keep it light weight.
“I like the challenge of building things,” says McMaster. The payoff is pretty cool too. When they take Wall-E out onto the show floor, fans are ecstatic to see a real world version of the animated character. McMaster says that fans have come to tears upon seeing the robot. “It happens all the time with Wall-E.”
But not all the robots here are derived from film and not all of them are made by adults. Foshay Learning Center, an LAUSD K-12 school located near USC, brought out their robotics team for Comikaze. On a table, they had a few Lego robots made by middle school students. On the floor were two much larger devices created by a team of high schoolers. One threw frisbees. Another could drop a larger ball and pick it up again. The kids at Foshay LC get to travel the country as they take their robots to competitions. After graduation, they might just take that experience into their next phase of life.
Not long ago, Kevyn Arcudia and Jose Quijas were members of the Foshay team. Arcudia went on to study computer engineering at Cal State Long Beach. Quijas earned a degree in computer science from Chico State. Now, they're back at Foshay as mentors and they're at Comikaze to help raise awareness about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineer and Mathematics) programs. “We know how important it is to actually get to apply math and science and have fun,” says Quijas.
Arcudia says that a program like this helped them figure out what they wanted to do after high school. The next generation is following suit. WIth them is a Foshay senior who now wants to study mechanical engineering. All seem to agree that getting together to build a robot is a rewarding experience. “We had a great experience,” says Quijas of his years as a teenage maker, “and we wanted them to have an even better experience.”
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