When artist and animator I-Wei Huang builds robots he likes to mix his curiosity for electronics with his appreciation for the burgeoning genre of Steampunk. So when he recently unveiled his Steampunk R2-D2 known as R2-S2 (R2 Steam Too), fans and droid builders wanted to know more. Starwars.com’s own Bonnie Burton tracked him down and picked his brain on how to turn everyone’s favorite astromech into a Victorian-inspired machine.
How do your skills as an animator help when you make these cool creations?
Being an animator, you tend to see things in a different way, and can’t help but notice subtle details of how things move and work, especially in motion of humans and animals. To be an animator these days, you sort of have to have a balance between being artsy-fartsy and techy-geeky. I like seeing mechanical things work, because it’s visual. You can watch and study the transfer of power, and figure out how one thing drives another. When it comes to non-visual things, like electronics, I have a hard time grasping concepts of how everything work together.
Being an artist also makes you want to do something different and unusual. I just enjoy coming up with silly ideas that no one is dumb enough to try. I try to make steam contraptions that perform well mechanically, but are also aesthetic pleasing to the eye. Part of the draw of the Victorian steam technology for me is the attention given to making machines beautiful. Just because it has to serve a function, doesn’t mean that it has to be ugly. I also gravitate towards making steam machines that resemble things in nature, in particular arthropods, or things with carapaces, shells or armor.
What is your background in robotics?
I have no background in robotics, just sort of figure it out as I went along, and still learning. I grew up watching all of the old Anime robot shows, so always had a strong interest in robots. But getting your feet wet in robotics is very intimidating, so I went with the ultra low-tech, mechanical approach. I’m still amazed that people call what I make “robots.” I guess it all depends on how you define the term.
What fascinates you about Steampunk?
I actually didn’t know what “Steampunk” is, until I’ve built several of these steam machines, and got blogged everywhere. One key word that kept popping up was Steampunk which is a genre of books, art, movies etc, that uses old Victorian technology in an alternate universe, or in a fantasy setting. Some examples of the well-known movies are Wild Wild West or Steam Boy. My main influences are more just sci-fi, with a hint of old technology, not necessarily all Steampunk. Playing with steam is just my excuse to play with fire.
One of my biggest influences in art is Hayao Miyazaki, who often design amazing machines full of character, and resembles some old, lost technology. And of course Star Wars fits the bill as well, a long long time ago… you know the rest.
What was the first Steampunk machine you made? What kinds of parts did you use? How did you hack it to use steam?
Some of the first steam machines were really simple — lots of wheeled vehicles made from erector sets with a steam engine mounted on top. I learned a lot about mechanics playing with these simple engines and parts, such as how pulleys, gears, and sprockets work, and how you can gear down to make small steam engines carry around its own weight. My first steam contraption that I was really proud of, was the Steam Walker, which was a four-legged walking machine. It ended up winning the Gold Medal for the Kinetic Artbots category at RoboGames 2006.
What are the stories behind the Steam Crab, the Steam LocoCentipede and the Steam Trilobite Tank machines you’ve made in the past?
The Steam Crab was a failed machine. It had many issues with the chassis and legs, not strong enough to support the weight of the heavy engines and boilers. It was my first attempt at hacking together a R/C steam walking machine. Anything that doesn’t perform up to standards is quickly scrapped for parts for my other steam projects. I later reused the two steam engines from the Steam Crab for R2-S2.
Wheeled machines are not as exciting to me as treaded vehicles. And a treaded machine are not as compelling as legged. So why not use a chassis with lots of legs that drives like a tank? I learned a lot building the Steam LocoCentipede; and it was a major pain. Making a steam machine carrying it weight creates a lot of problems, and add legs to the equation, it’s quite a challenge. The centipede has a hard time producing steam, and fast enough for two very thirsty steam engines. It can only sustain very short runs before having to wait and build up steam pressure. I am now in the process of making a better centipede, with twice the size, and twice the number of legs.
Trilobites are probably my absolute favorite designs of nature. The Steam Trilobite Tank was designed short and cute to try and create the simple shapes of a trilobite. The steam unit was taken from my Steam Spider, which I was trying to finish in time for RoboGames last year. In the process of testing the spider, I blew out a crank. I still wanted to have a nice machine for the event, and the result was the Trilobite, which was rushed together in a few days, just barely in time to take home the Gold Medal for Best of Show.
So by now, you’ve heard about lots of my failed projects, but I think it’s worth mentioning that not all of my attempts pan out. I have a lot of crazy ideas, and I do a lot of quick proof of concepts. Most proved that I don’t have the skills or ability to make it work, and I don’t bother to publish them on my web site. For ever successful machine, there are way more failures. But it’s the few that do succeed, that makes it all worth while. You just have to have a vision, research into everything that you can for the project, and get your feet wet.
Why did you decide to make a Steampunk R2-D2 unit?
In the quest to make unique steam powered machines, I always look for interesting configurations that I haven’t seen before with steam power. I started thinking about using a vertical boiler, and making a chassis that supports two steam engines mounted on the sides. The engines could be chain-linked to two drive wheels for skid steering, with a center supporting swivel wheel — hey, wait a minute….that’s Artoo!
What materials did you use and how did you hack R2-D2 so he could run on steam? What challenges did you face in making it?
After some searching through the Web, I found a suitable chassis/body — the Hasbro Interactive Droid. The dimensions were about right; it fit a nice boiler that I had in the body. The problem was that I didn’t have the heart to hack a perfectly working Artoo to pieces. I waited patiently on eBay, and in the mean time I tackled on many other projects. The idea sat on the shelf for many months, and finally an Artoo with broken electronics, showed up on eBay. Since no one else wanted a broken droid, I ended up winning it. Gutting it was very disturbing I must say, but seeing it come back to life under steam power, was very rewarding.
R2-S2 (R2 Steam Too) was actually a very simple project. I had to heat proof Artoo’s body from the inside (with sheet metal and fiberglass insulation material) so that the nice plastic body wouldn’t melt. Engines mounted on the outside fit perfectly, and chain drive connected to the gearbox also went without much of a hitch. The whole project took two weeks or so on my spare time. It was nice to have such a smooth project, it’s something that just doesn’t happen for me very often.
What was the reaction from fans at Maker Faire and RoboGames who witnessed R2-S2 in action?
Lots of audible laughter, ear to ear grins. Many people read the signs, or saw it run with steam shooting out of the sides, still had to ask for the confirmation “is this really steam powered? No really… it’s steam powered?” And the kids loved it. Of course, how can you go wrong with everyone’s favorite droid?
Any plans for a steam C-3PO or steam AT-AT?
I’ve had many people tell me the Steam Walker reminds them of the AT-AT. Perhaps I should have named it Luke SteamWalker? I’m not a big fan of C-3PO, sorry! AT-ST would be a better fit for a steam biped.
Why do you think Star Wars droids make much a nice transition to Steampunk?
The original Star Wars designs were very old-tech looking. After all it was a long, long time ago. The machines were just so well designed, simple, yet full of character. That’s the aspect which is most appealing to me about Steampunk.
Would you ever like to see an entire Star Wars movie redone with Steampunk characters and machines? What in Star Wars would make you most excited to see it done in Steampunk form — the vehicles, characters, Death Star?
Some old Star Wars machines, such as the AT-AT and AT-ST are some of my favorite robotic designs of all time, perhaps done correctly in Steampunk fashion would be really cool to see. But the originals are so nicely designed, that I’d hate to change any part of them.
To learn how to make a Steampunk machine, check out Huang’s R/C Steam Turbine Tank tutorial on Instructables.com.
For more information on Huang’s Steampunk robots, visit his site Crabfu SteamWorks here.