BD-1 model

Disney Imagineering debuted adorable free-roaming droids — which they call “droids-in-training” — to interact with guests inside Disneyland’s Star Wars–themed Galaxy’s Edge land in Anaheim, California recently. I saw them and they are cool and cute, and astonishing!

The charming little robots resemble BD-1, a droid character created for the game Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, developed by Respawn Entertainment. He was designed by Jordan Lamarre-Wan.

This brand new, real-life robot was developed by a team led by Moritz Bächer from Disney Research in Zurich, Switzerland. It’s mostly 3D printed, using modular hardware and actuators (moving parts) that made it quick to design and iterate on, going from concept to what you see in the below picture/video in less than a year.

Engineering students enjoy the robot (IEEE)

At the 2023 IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS), in Detroit, a Disney Research team presented the brand new and unnamed robotic character during an evening keynote address. The adorable robot packs a remarkable amount of expression into a toddler-size body, from its highly expressive head with two bouncing antennae to its stubby, flexible little legs. But what sets this robot apart from other small bipeds is how it walks and poses—it’s full of personality, emoting as it moves in a way that makes it seem uniquely alive.

“Most roboticists are focused on getting their bipedal robots to reliably walk,” says Disney research scientist Morgan Pope, who helped present the robot on stage. “At Disney, that might not be enough—our robots may have to strut, prance, sneak, trot, or meander to convey the emotion that we need them to.”

Disney began making audio-animatronic figures back in the 60s, including an impressive Abraham Lincoln for the New York World’s Fair, that is still on view with updated tech. In 2009, Disney debuted an interactive version of the technology called Autonomatronics, and in 2018, announced aerial stunt figures called Stuntronics.

Disney has many animators who know how to give meaningful expression to 2D and 3D characters. But hand and computer animation doesn’t necessarily have to follow the laws of physics. Real world robots do. To bring animation into the real world, Disney Research developed an adaptive machine learning model that translates the animator’s drawings into motions the robot can actually perform.

Disney’s system is able to train motion sequences in real time, while making slight changes to things like each motor’s action, robot balance, friction, etc. The training system ensures that whatever the robot encounters in the real world, it will know how to handle itself, while still emoting in character, which is critical to the robot maintaining its character. 

This is an interesting new application of AI. The “droids in training” work with a machine learning system that includes both character and walking models. Combining the 2 kinds of motion. After a few months of training, the robot is able to respond to a change in the environment while staying on its feet and responding in character. Even if it never encountered that situation in training. In fact the droids don’t actually have a fixed script, they are responding to the environment as they encounter it.

“In situations where humans and robots are close to each other, conveying emotion and intent can be an important feature,” explains Georg Wiedebach, senior R&D imagineer at Disney. “So I think this can also be valuable in other applications where robots are working next to people.” Some advanced robots look a bit creepy, but these are accepted easily.

The system is also flexible in both programming and hardware. If they wanted a character that had say, six legs, you could use a version of the same machine model that just had a new hardware model with more legs.

Disney also recently filed a patent for this system, called “Design of Stylized Walking gaits for Bipedal Robots,” and is for an animation engine and editor that would help create various gaits for a bipedal walking robot. It reads, “This allows a legged robot to walk along an arbitrary path while expressing a custom animation”

from Disney’s patent form, looks like textbook animation

How is Disney so far ahead in life-like robots? Maybe because they know how to create life-like emotion and expression in inanimate objects, and minimize facial animation, which is still in the uncanny valley for robots. Disney has made several attempts to add roaming autonomatronic characters to their parks, but the crowded walkways were an issue. Maybe the new droids can deal with that.

Here’s the Youtube link BTS videos: Imagineering.


David Raiklen
David Raiklen

David Raiklen wrote, directed and scored his first film at age 9. He began studying keyboard and composing at age 5. He attended, then taught at UCLA, USC and CalArts. Among his teachers are John Williams and Mel Powel.
He has worked for Fox, Disney and Sprint. David has received numerous awards for his work, including the 2004 American Music Center Award. Dr. Raiklen has composed music and sound design for theater (Death and the Maiden), dance (Russian Ballet), television (Sing Me a Story), cell phone (Spacey Movie), museums (Museum of Tolerance), concert (Violin Sonata ), and film (Appalachian Trail).
His compositions have been performed at the Hollywood Bowl and the first Disney Hall. David Raiken is also host of a successful radio program, Classical Fan Club.