by Michael Martinez
Photos by Abbie Willans
Michael Smith may not live in a galaxy far, far away, but he does have a piece of one in his garage. A lot of pieces actually. Smith is building one of the most iconic characters in Star Wars history: R2-D2. To be clear, this droid he’s creating will be far more than a simple stationary replica.
Smith’s own R2 will be fully functional when it’s completed and will include all manners of moving parts, playable audio and lights. Wheels on its legs enable it to drive around rooms, and its head is able to swivel independently of its body. The hologram projector that famously displayed Princess Leia even made it into Smith’s robot, but unfortunately isn’t capable of projecting Leia. The audio is straight out of the movies as all beeps, dings and buzzes are official audio clips from Lucasfilm. Smith is especially proud of his R2-D2’s ‘hacking arm’, which he says is difficult to craft and fit into the already cluttered insides of the droid. While he has certainly poured a significant amount of devotion into his R2, he’s anything but alone in this hobby.
Smith is a member of a group known as the R2-D2 Builders Club, a community of builders from around the world who are just as passionate about building R2 robots as he is. For those building their own droids, the group is a haven of similarly passionate individuals. They can share tips, blueprints, parts or just discuss their love for, and opinions on, one the world’s most well-known movie series. With almost 10,000 members from around the world, the Builders Club is an expansive and diverse community. As if making your own robot wasn’t cool enough, several builders have had their creations featured in official Star Wars promotional work and at charity events. Two members have even received contracts from Lucasfilm to oversee the R2-D2 model that will be used in the upcoming movie. Smith shares similar aspirations, hoping to see his completed work make a difference in the lives of those that may be struggling.
“I read about these [R2 builder] guys doing their hospital visits in particular,” Smith said, “and I thought ‘What a great idea. What a cool way to do something so cool. Like, build a droid, I mean who doesn’t want an R2-D2, right? What a cool way to do all that while also being constructive and positive in helping other people.’ If you see what kids do at the hospitals when they see the droids – it means a lot. It makes a big difference for them I think.”
Smith, a mechanical engineer, husband and father, has held a passion for Star Wars since his first viewing of the original film in theaters. His creation may appear to be nothing more than a simple extension of his fandom, to him, however, the potential for the project is much greater. While his love for the series is what initially inspired him to undertake this, even loftier hopes, such as using his droid for charity, motivate him through the lengthy process.
The reward of completing and using his droid to share his love for Star Wars comes at the expense of a considerable time and financial commitment. He’s been working on his R2 since 2012. It’s been an effort of love, patience and learning. He made a number of the droid’s parts himself or reused parts from other builders who had no further use for them. This has helped keep his costs down. Even if he does purchase new parts rather than making his own, they often must be modified or fitted to work in his droid. If everything comes together as he hopes, Smith estimates the final budget for his droid may not be much more than $500. He does say, however, that some builders’ droids exceed $10,000 if they are buying high-end electronics and brand new parts. Even if a builder is purchasing many of their parts new, there is still a significant number of things that must be created by hand, or existing parts that must be molded to fit specific purposes.
“It’s not like you can just buy this as a kit… it requires a ton of research, a lot of decision making and considerable skill,” Smith said.
One of the most interesting aspects of Smith’s droid is that he’s made very little effort to keep it in pristine condition. Sure, he avoids letting parts break, and steers clear of situations that may cause serious damage, but what he doesn’t mind are little nicks, scratches and dings that give it a more authentic weathered look similar to the R2-D2 that was noticeably banged up in many of the films.
Taking on such a project is no small endeavor, but Smith’s support for the project is larger than just the builders group. His family has stood by him as well. While he says his wife is more of a Doctor Who fan, she has become enthusiastic about the project, and sees the charitable potential of it as a worthy cause. His daughter loves the idea of having a working R2-D2 in the house. A Star Wars fan herself, she’s been regularly watching the animated show Star Wars Rebels with her father.
Smith doesn’t have a specific deadline set for the droid’s completion, but he would like to have it ready before the premiere of Star Wars: Episode VII in December. As far as he knows he is the only one in the area that has an R2-D2 and would love to use it at a premiere event for future Star Wars films.
Will Michael Smith’s R2 be completed in time?
It’s hard to say right now, but one thing’s for sure: the force is strong with this one.