Engineering Six Decades of Disney Robotics
Disney is creating autonomous robots for its parks with the help of a former Boston Dynamics engineer.
When you think of robotics, Mickey Mouse probably doesn’t come to mind, but he should. For the past six+ decades, Disney has made groundbreaking achievements in robotics, and it all started with a toy bird and a president. Here’s how Disney went from making Abe Lincoln speak to making Spider-Man fly.
Disney Robotics History
It started when Walt Disney visited a shop while on vacation and saw a mechanical toy bird. He was intrigued. What if he could make his animation three-dimensional? What if his cartoons could live outside of the screen?
Walt soon had his Imagineers take the bird apart and inspect it. Next, they researched how they could create 3D, electronically animated figures, later called Audio-Animatronics, in an endeavor known as “Project Little Man.” First, the team studied real people in the studio — including actor Buddy Ebsen — rigorously tracking their movements and creating models of their heads to make the figures realistic. Then, in 1963, Disney debuted the first Animatronics in Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room. For the first time, people could watch characters talk and sing right in front of their eyes in a colorful and tropical display of what was to come for Audio-Animatronics.
Disney Brings Abraham Lincoln to Life
Eventually, Disney and his Imagineers went from the jungle to the White House when they took on their most ambitious project yet: bringing Abraham Lincoln to life. They premiered Lincoln at the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair to astounded crowds. During each show, Lincoln stood up, looked around the room to ponder the shocked faces, and opened his mouth: “The world never had a good definition of the word ‘liberty.’” For the first time in a century, Lincoln could inspire Americans with a live speech. So how did they do it? You’ll have to follow the music to find out.
The machine used a system of hydraulics and pneumatics that worked like a player piano from an old Western saloon. But, rather than reading mechanically-recorded notes, the system read mechanically-recorded movements. A magnetic tape sent electric signals to valves in Lincoln, telling them to move his arms, make him blink, look or around the room, and move his lips, similar to the Animatronics from Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress:
Making Disney Robots More Realistic
Looking back at the footage of Animatronic Lincoln and other early Animatronics, it’s clear that the technology was…new. Lincoln’s movements are sharp and jolted, and his face lacks expression. Luckily Disney has made some improvements since Lincoln’s debut, and they continue to advance robotics and stun crowds. In 2017 Disney’s Imagineers invited guests to hear the Shaman of Songs on Pandora, and now they’ve entered superhero territory:
A few years ago, Disney took their endeavors to the skies with “Stuntronics,” aka autonomous, robot acrobats that soar through the air and do aerial stunts with ease. In June 2021, they displayed this tech to the public as a flying Spider-Man animatronic in Avengers Campus at Disneyland Resort. But long before there was Spider-Man, there was Stickman:
Controlling Aerial Motion with Stickman
The Imagineers began their project by attempting to control aerial motion. How could they make an object fly and land exactly how they wanted? They researched conservation of angular momentum. It’s the same thing figure skaters use to control their speed when doing jumps and spins, and the same technique squirrels use to control their landing when leaping from high points. From this came Stickman. Stickman is a Z-shaped robot with hinges that performs aerial somersaults by tucking and untucking itself after releasing from a pendulum launch. To the naked eye Stickman may seem like a simple pole flipping through the air, but underneath lies a system of sensors, laser rangefinders, accelerometers, and gyroscopes to help the Disney robot process data mid-flight, correct its position, and nail the perfect landing, every time.
Stickman eventually transformed into a more human-like robot that controls its center of mass and strikes poses mid-flight. Although Stuntronics are only planned for Disney’s parks, there is a chance they could move to film sets and act as test dummies for stuntmen.
You may see Spider-Man soaring through the skies, but what about on the ground? The Imagineers are way ahead of you with a 2.5-foot robot named Kiwi.
Project Kiwi, “I am Groot”
For Project Kiwi, Imagineer Principal Scott LaValley, who came from Boston Dynamics and worked on the first version of Atlas, has been working with a team to create a small-scale, bipedal, free-roaming robot, possibly for future use in Disney Parks. A project this unique requires unique parts.
The robotics industry doesn’t have many bipedal components that support non-industrial functions like theme parks and work autonomously, so Project Kiwi required many custom, patentable parts. Kiwi’s custom humanoid skeleton can resemble multiple characters, and his custom performance software gives him a specific, personalized gait. Imagineers used custom-printed polymer to create prototypes of the frame and later custom parts from industrial printers. Kiwi’s current skeleton is hollow to let air cool him down, and at some point, his clothing will help air exit near his feet. All of Kiwi’s actuators were built from scratch by the Disney robotics team, and his gears share energy and motors between different body parts. This keeps Kiwi’s innards as compact and discreet as possible.
Even with Kiwi’s impressive resume and abilities, the Imagineers still have a long road ahead with a lot of research, including preparing Kiwi to navigate uneven surfaces, manage unpredictable interactions with people, and use more lifelike facial expressions.
What’s Next for Disney robotics?
With all robotics, it seems that everything we thought impossible will someday be possible, and Disney robots are no exception. If Boston Dynamics can send robots like Spot into the real world, who says Disney can’t send its characters?
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