Following the debut of the Donald Trump robot that perfectly captured the soul of its namesake, many people are wondering what Disney’s Imagineers will do next. The answer turns out to be autonomous stunt double bots that bring us one giant leap closer to IRL Westworld.
It might come as a surprise that it’s easier to make a robot that does a Captain America-style hero pose while flying 30 feet in the air than it is to just make one convincingly walk around, but that’s the reality. TechCrunch reports that Disney’s Imagineering R&D department started considering that fact in recent years as the theme park animatronics its known for began struggling to keep pace with what audiences expect from the growing roster of characters under the Disney umbrella.
Animatronics at a theme park have to be sturdy and reliable enough to run through their routines over and over, all day, for years. Imagineers have to think more like the designers behind the Toyota Corolla than the ones trying to break the sound barrier in Formula One. That doesn’t mean they aren’t innovating, their innovations just need to be reliable. So Disney’s animatronics tend to be heavy, complex machines that are firmly bolted to the ground. That’s where the idea for bringing in a stunt double came up.
Tony Dohi, Principal R&D Imagineer, told TechCrunch, “what this is about is the realization we came to after seeing where our characters are going on screen whether they be Star Wars characters, or Pixar characters, or Marvel characters or our own animation characters, is that they’re doing all these things that are really, really active.” A featured animatronic character could handle most of the duties for entertaining the audience and a more advanced, agile, and fragile bot could do something fantastic in the middle of the show to take things to another level.
A new division of the company called Stuntronics took up the task of building the stuntbot. At this point, the robot has advanced to the point of having a humanoid form that can swing from a rope, strike cool poses, self-correct its trajectory in mid-air and land in a designated spot every time. It has on-board accelerometer and gyroscope arrays with laser range finding. And seeing it in action is pretty cool.
But what’s more impressive than the bot’s acrobatics is that its progressing extremely fast. In May, Disney unveiled Stuntronics’ predecessor, Stickman. It’s a cool little bot in its own right, but it isn’t much more than a bunch of gears and sensors with a couple of joints. At a distance, the latest update passes for something more than human—a superhero.
Combining this tech with Disney’s vision of “soft robots” naturally conjures images of advanced Luke Skywalker and Iron Man androids becoming sentient and massacring visitors at Disneyland. (Obviously, right?) But I’m more intrigued by the idea of robots becoming doubles for humans in movies and bringing back more practical stunt work. CGI will likely always be the cheaper option, but it’s easy to imagine filmmakers mixing in a little more real world stunt work that can get extra dangerous because no one’s going to die. Except for audiences, eventually, some day.