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How Does the Awesome ‘Star Wars’ BB-8 Droid Work?

Daniel Howley
Technology Editor

The Force is strong with this one.

BB-8, the newest robotic member of the Star Wars universe, is set to make its big-screen debut in the forthcoming Star Wars: The Force Awakens. And this little droid isn’t just some slick piece of computer-generated wizardry: It’s also a real live robot that moves and beeps.

And while BB-8 is really freaking cute — your kids will definitely want to take it home — it’s also an odd little bit of technology. BB-8’s head not only appears to float over its rolling body; its head can also move across the entire surface of its body. When BB-8 first appeared in Star Wars previews, people assumed it was purely computer-generated, since the mechanics of its body and head don’t make sense in the real world.

And then BB-8 appeared in person at the Star Wars Celebration this week.


So how does the real-life version of BB-8 work? Well, that’s the thing. Only the folks that made and control it really know, and they’re not talking.

But that won’t stop us from speculating! Here then, is what we know about the real-life BB-8, as well as a few decent guesses as to how this little sphere-bot keeps his head on.

It’s inspired by a toy

There’s one thing we know about BB-8, and that’s that it was designed by toy maker Sphero. The Colorado-based company produces a small spherical toy of the same name that you control using your smartphone or tablet.

Using a gyroscope and a series of wheels that move inside the ball, Sphero is able to continuously roll and change directions with ease. According to Forbes, Disney worked with Sphero to bring its design to the Star Wars universe in the form of BB-8.

So that explains how the bottom half of BB-8 works. But how does its head float around its body?

Magnets

One of the most popular theories about how BB-8’s head stays perched atop its rolling body is with a series of powerful magnets.

Popular Mechanics posits that BB-8’s head and body have a series of magnets that keep the two tethered, as well as a remote control that allows the head to be controlled separately.

That’s the theory put forth by The Daily Mail, which says that BB-8’s head could have its own gyroscope, which lets it know which way is up. The Mail spoke with Professor Will Stewart at the Institute of Engineering and Technology in London, who explained that BB-8’s head is probably connected to its lower half using magnetic rollers.

Jason Torchinsky at Jalopnik has a slightly different theory. He thinks that BB-8’s head is essentially empty besides the aforementioned magnets and a few LEDs. Keeping the droid’s head lightweight, he says, would help keep it from falling off.

A sketch of how BB-8 may work by Jason Torchinsky. (Jalopnik)

A rod

One of the ways that BB-8 was originally thought to work was with a pole hidden underneath its head that keeps it attached to its body. The problem with this idea is that BB-8’s head is able to freely roll around its lower half.

If a pole or rod were connecting the two, there would have to be some kind of visible opening on the droid’s body, and there simply aren’t any.

A series of hyper-intelligent hamsters

BB-8 could be a little robot car that sits on top of the ball, always changing speed and direction to stay in place. Or, equally likely, a horde of genetically altered, hyper-intelligent rodents.

The hamsters’ overlord controls the droid’s head.

[citation needed]

The Force

It makes more sense than hamsters.

Email Daniel Howley at dhowley@yahoo-inc.com; follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley or on Google+.