Flying Animatronics Demonstrate Why the Future of Robotics May Be Disney, Not DARPA

Thursday, 24 January 2019 - 1:36PM
Gadgets
Thursday, 24 January 2019 - 1:36PM
Flying Animatronics Demonstrate Why the Future of Robotics May Be Disney, Not DARPA
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Image: Walt Disney Co.
Long before Chuck E. Cheese, themed bars, and dreams of entire islands dedicated to cloned dinosaurs, there was Disneyland. Say what you will about Disney's effect on the Marvel Universe or the Star Wars franchise, Disneyland is, in many ways, representative of Outer Place's tagline: a place "where science meets science fiction."


In a jaded and cynical era, it's easy to take much of what we've come to expect from Disneyland for granted: the posturing disaffected write off Disney's android-like hosts as "just" animatronics, worthy of little more acknowledgement than department store mannequins. What people often miss is that the technological advances being made in these creations could – and we speculate will – affect the evolution of robotics as a whole. Two notable cases are Disney's Stuntronics robot and their Audio-Animatronic creations.


Last year Disney's Imagineers succeeded in building out a 90-pound autonomous humanoid based on a simple z-shaped robot in just a matter of months. In a company news update, Disney reported that the acrobatic Stuntronics robot uses a sophisticated system of onboard sensors to make real-time decisions while it flies through the air. According to the report, "it knows when to tuck its knees to perform a somersault, when to pull its arms to twist, and even when to slow down its spin to make sure it sticks that perfect landing." 


To add a little context, a year after DARPA developed clunky robots that can do backflips, Disney was making robots that know how to do backflips in midair. When it comes to developing T-100 technology, we're going to give the edge to Disney on this one. 



Part of the success in the Stuntronics robot may have emerged from earlier Disney technology that updated animatronic figures to make them more, well, human in their movement. A Disney-held patent for a "robotic human torso" filed in 1993 reveals the "unique combination of high speed rotary and linear actuators arranged in a geometry that enables anatomically correct human-like movement" built into their animatronics, making them more realistic. In an interview with TechCrunch, Tony Dohi, a Principal R&D Imagineer at Disney described how this continued quest for realism informed the development of the Stuntronics robot. "So what this is about is the realization we came to after seeing where our characters are going on screen," Dohi told TechCrunch, "whether they be Star Wars characters, or Pixar characters, or Marvel characters or our own animation characters, is that they're doing all these things that are really, really active. And so that becomes the expectation our park guests have that our characters are doing all these things on screen - but when it comes to our attractions, what are our animatronic figures doing? We realized we have kind of a disconnect here."


Disney's advances in bridging that disconnect are evidenced in two more recent patents combining various technologies that seem to bring the possibility of a real-life Westworld even closer. The first aims to more closely replicate human appearances through "physical face cloning," a method that "uses facial performance capture, physics-based simulation, and fabrication-oriented material design to model, optimize, and fabricate synthetic skin for animatronic characters." The second uses light projection technology – a form of augmented reality – to accomplish a different aspect of the same task. Recognizing that "the precision, number, and control of actuators that are required to accurately represent details such as dimples, wrinkles, and so on, may be cost-prohibitive, require space within the head of the figures, and/or require extensive control systems," Disney developed technology to project these details onto animatronic figures in such a way that they'd be observable from any angle. 



The potential applications for these technologies far exceed anything found in Disney's parks or films: they demonstrate the possibilities found at the crossroads of art and technology; where science meets science fiction.
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Robotics
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