Last week, visitors to Disneyland’s Launch Bay were treated to a new attraction: an interactive droid called Jake.
The small trashcan-sized droid is able to move on its own, interact with guests, and even sync with controls panels like R2-D2, triggering a pre-scripted sequence.
According to the droid’s handler, Jake is supposedly “100% independent and moves freely around” on his own. So does this mean we’ll get fully autonomous droids in the upcoming Star Wars Disney park?
There are two massive hurdles before we can get a feisty R2 that rolls on his own: cost and safety.
The reality is, having a remote operator is less expensive than developing a new autonomous system for the droid. While Tesla and Google are making huge strides in autonomous path-finding for self-driving cars (where there’s a HUGE market), Disney may not be keen to do the same for what’s essentially an amusement park prop.
There are two elements to costumed characters at Disney parks: the character itself and a handler. Notice how these pair of stormtroopers are followed by a low-key handler.
This setup is easily translated to a droid. Instead of being in costume, the “character” is a remote operator controlling the droid from a central station, while the handler ensures the safety of the prop as well as surrounding guests.
To reduce costs, Disney can even combine the operator and handler in one. Instead of controlling the droid from a remote station, the handler can use a concealed remote to “guide” it around. Rather than looking like a typical RC remote control with antenna, it could be similar to the remote for Spin Master’s upcoming BB-8:
Back in 2008, Disney and Pixar debuted a full-sized WALL-E robot for amusement parks. However, the sheer weight of the 700 lb. animatronic, coupled with the feet-crushing potential of its its tank treads, didn’t make WALL-E a viable long-term attraction.
Since then, Disney seems to have learned. Jake’s small size and weight reduce the chances of bowling people over, while its Roomba-like design shields its wheels from crushed toe lawsuits.
However, the danger comes not from Jake itself but from guests. Little kids will want to hug, pat and roughhouse droids, so an autonomous droid must still be able to stop and handle these unpredictable interactions.
Having said that, how WILL a truly autonomous droid function? There are two ways:
1. Sensors – Jake and his future counterparts could be equipped with a suite of sensors to register interaction. A light / infrared sensor will allow him to “see” and navigate, an auditory sensor will pick-up sounds so he can react appropriately, and pressure-sensitive sensors on the dome and metal skin will register contact like pats and hugs.
2. GPS / pre-programmed navigation – Alternatively, Jake could be programmed with a virtual layout of the park. To get around, he could use either GPS to pinpoint his location, or sensors embedded in the surroundings to help him navigate. Such technology is being used in consumer drones like Parrot’s AR and DJI, enabling the drones to fly to a set of coordinates and return home autonomously.
Whatever the case, a moving, beeping interactive droid will surely make the Star Wars experience more fun and authentic. We can’t wait to see what Disney will come up with!
Meanwhile, Stormtrooper Larry will stick to his interactive R2.