Star Wars robots like R2-D2, C3PO could help you in real life

Scientists have looked into the feasibility of lovable droids like BB-8 and R2-D2, and find they're good for more than just pushing a plot forward.

Eric Mack
Eric Mack Contributing Editor
Contributing editor Eric Mack covers space, science, climate change and all things futuristic. His encrypted email for tips is ericcmack@protonmail.com.
2 min read

BB-8 poses with its best side front.


If you ever find yourself in dicey situations like those faced by Poe Dameron and Han Solo, you might find a series of high-pitched beeps and tones like trusty robot R2-D2's helpful. 

That's the conclusion of Robin Murphy, Texas A&M University professor of computer science and engineering. 

Murphy considered whether the beloved robots R2-D2 and BB-8 from the Star Wars universe would be feasible in real life and found the Hollywood mechs actually have some practical features beyond just advancing an often convoluted narrative, especially when it comes to communication. She published her findings Wednesday in the journal Science Robotics

"The beeps and whistles project mental state, e.g., disagreement with whatever C3PO is nattering about, disapproval of a main character's dubious decision, and frustration at being thwarted in its job of helping the protagonist save the world," Murphy explains. "In real life, (roboticist) Robin Read has found that the types of beeps and whistles that facilitate the rebel-droid interaction can be effectively used by real robots in engaging children and adults."

But when it comes to getting around, the design of BB-8 turns out to be less realistic, especially for navigating the sands of Jakku as seen in "Star Wars: The Force Awakens."

"Anyone who has driven a car on a beach knows how quickly wheels can become buried in the sand and spin in place," Murphy writes, going on to cite the work of other scientists like Georgia Tech's Dan Goldman, who performed experiments with the Sphero BB-8 toy on sand to see how it did.

You can see one such experiment in the video below. While Murphy acknowledges a toy is different from an actual robot, it still demonstrates how BB-8 was clearly conceived more for a particular storyline than an actual setting. 

Still, Murphy says Star Wars droids have had a very real influence on real-world robotics, pointing out that NASA's personal satellite assistant was inspired in part by Luke Skywalker's lightsaber training droid and Robonaut 2 aboard the International Space Station bears a certain resemblance to C3PO. 

Murphy fails to chime in on the potential influence of some of the more effective battle droids, like the freaky Droidekas from "The Phantom Menace." 

No worries, though. I think Elon Musk may have some thoughts on the risks of combining those type of droids with artificial intelligence that we can all heed instead.

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