Kansas droid maker joins growing trend

Written by Muleskinner Staff

The Kansas City Star
(LENEXA, Kan., AP) — Most people just have cars, bikes and lawn mowers in their garage. George Westwater has a droid.

As in R2-D2. As in Star Wars. As in … “Whoa! Where’d you get that thing?”
With “Star Wars: Episode VII” now shooting, every tidbit of news about the iconic franchise flies across social media and the Internet at light speed.
Fan-built droids are part of the frenzy. Costing more than $16,000, the Lenexa man’s R2 is no dime-store copy. Though you could believe he got it at a George Lucas estate sale, actually he built it by hand with his sons, 7-year-old Alex and 5-year-old Zach.
Turns out that “Star Wars” fans around Kansas City and around the globe are doing the same thing. Westwater belongs to Astromech.net, an international droid builders club with 14,000 members.
“I have personally talked to people in Argentina, Brazil, New Zealand, Australia, France, England and Italy,” Westwater said.
The fans’ droids are so good that Star Wars producer Kathleen Kennedy hired a couple of British club members to make the R2-D2 and other “astromech” droids for the new movie.
“It’s a dream come true,” Oliver Steeples of Berkshire, England, one of the club members now working on the movie, told LucasFilm.com.
To make the plans for building “screen-accurate” droids, club members got measurements from the movies, then got help from “Star Wars” creator George Lucas, who made available parts from the films’ archives.
The resulting droids are more than just nerd nirvana. They’re little robotic ambassadors doing good in the world. Their owners take them to charitable events and children’s hospitals, where they bring smiles from kids of all ages and special bonds with special-needs children.
Westwater’s droid is technically an R2-A7, sporting slightly different colors (green, silver and white) than the original R2-D2 (blue, silver and white). But in virtually every other way it is so accurate you’d almost expect Luke Skywalker and C-3PO to come strolling through the room.
Westwater’s droid beeps and boops. Its brushed metal dome spins, and its multicolored LED lights flash with computerized precision. Complete with a motor and a remote, it can move around a room and play sound clips from the movie, including the theme song.
It is made from aluminum, which increases the cost. But other droids can be made (mostly of wood) for as little as $1,500, he said.
For Westwater, a 36-year-old software engineer who started the local chapter of Astromech two years ago, making droids and other robots with his boys is a labor of love.
The most fun part?
“Spraying the paint on it!” Zach said.
“Driving it!” Alex said.
“We decided the kids were just about old enough to be able to watch the ‘Star Wars’ movies,” Westwater said. “And they were getting to the age where I was looking for a project to do with them — hopefully around electronics or software. So we decided to build an R2. I started looking for some reference photos, then stumbled across the group.”
After getting plans from Astromech, he joined with other droid builders around the world to get laser-cut parts made at a bulk discount. Then he started building.
“It may seem daunting, but we have builders as young as 10 building on their own,” he said. “Everything can be done by anybody of any skill level. Quite literally, the laser-cut parts are like a 3-D puzzle. You just glue and screw.”
But what about the circuit boards and software? Not just anybody can do that.
“For a lot of the parts inside, we try to stick to as many off-the-shelf parts as possible,” he said. “And there are walk-throughs on how to make them work. And just about anywhere anybody is living, there’s somebody nearby who is probably building a droid who can help.”
Westwater has taken his droid to “Star Wars” events, comic-cons and his boys’ schools. He likes his aluminum R2 so much that he’s building another from plastic and fiberglass.
A home office in his basement serves as robot central. The room is chock-full of electronics and components, and decorated with countless photos and various-sized action figures. There’s C-3PO, Darth Vader, Darth Maul.
“And this is a Dalek,” he said, pointing to a chunky figure of the robotic nemesis of Doctor Who on the British show of the same name.
The local Astromech club Westwater founded now has 21 members — about 10 of whom are actively building.
One is Brandon Paith, an IT configuration manager from Shawnee. After Paith built his R2-D2, his father decided to build one. Then his fiancee, Kristen, joined the fun.
The color scheme for her droid: black and hot pink.
“The first time I saw (a droid) was at a comic convention in Overland Park about three years ago,” Paith said. “I told my buddy: I have to have one. It is the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen.’ He said, ‘You’ll never build one.’ I went up to the guy, got some information, and the next thing you knew I had an R2-D2 in front of me.”
Droids can be basic or highly customized.
“We can make them do (virtually) everything they do in the movies,” Paith said. “Except fly.
“Well, they can fly,” he said with a laugh. “But only once.”
There are droids with Tasers, periscopes, scanners and more. Westwater and Paith help each other with theirs.
“I am a hands-on guy and fabricator,” Paith said. “George is the programming guy. There’s been multiple times when I said, ‘Oh, it’s impossible to get it to do what I want it to do.’ Then George will say, ‘Oh no it’s not, and here’s exactly how we’ll do it.’ He’s amazing.”
When Paith was struggling with his LED lights, a builder from Florida helped him via video on Skype.
“For three hours he watched me solder every LED and run every wire, making sure that I did everything right,” Paith said. “After we were done I plugged it in, and the darn thing worked.”
Westwater says the droids give him a certain cachet. “I grew up being the geeky kid,” he said.
But now everything has flipped. Just ask his kids or any of their friends. Now he’s the cool dad. He’s even going to make his boys their very own “trash can” robots out of round-domed plastic waste cans.
His next larger project: making a Dalek from “Doctor Who” big enough to ride in. And he will keep taking his R2 droid to charitable events. He often partners with a local group, called the 501st, that makes replica costumes of Star Wars characters.
“One of the things we will start doing next year when our droid gets a little bit more polished is, we will start doing some of the events with the 501st group with the Make-A-Wish Foundation,” he said. “They will get 50 or 60 guys dressed up like storm troopers or Darth Vader, and they will ask for an R2 to come out to those events so the kids can see them as well.”
Through his droid, Westwater can make new friends across the world, make a child smile and pass on the magic of science and technology to a new generation. He loves attending sci-fi and technology conferences.
“My favorite part is that special-needs children are so drawn to it,” he said. “We end up spending 20 to 30 percent of a two- or three-day conference with families of special-needs kids. That never gets old to me.”
Or to Paith.
“One of the most memorable moments I ever had was at a convention in Kansas City where a boy in a wheelchair was smiling ear to ear,” he said. “And he hugged R2 in his wheelchair.
“It literally brought a tear to my eye. At that moment, every hour I worked on this thing and every dollar I poured into it was all worth it. It just made me realize that, just for a moment, (he) actually got to meet R2-D2, and he will remember that for the rest of his life.”