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These are the droids you’re looking for

Joe Wilensky

Students in senior lecturer David R. Schneider’s systems engineering robotics lab in Carpenter Hall took a moment away from their projects to mark #MayThe4thBeWithYou day on Wednesday and posed (right) with their student-designed “Star Wars” R2-D2 lab assistant robot. Also visible in the group is a C-3PO-inspired robot, now decommissioned, that was a student project a couple of years ago.

The R2-D2 is being redeveloped this year to offer more functionality as a lab assistant while the engineering students work on other robotics projects. Coming features will include responding to commands via voice recognition, answering with classic R2-D2 beeps and whistles, a better onboard navigation system, and an inventory system to bring lab members tools and parts and check those items out to the students.

Schneider, whose own first robotics project in elementary school was inspired by the “Star Wars” androids (as well as a 1987 article, “Build Your Own Robot,” in Boy’s Life magazine), said the robotics and lore in the “Star Wars” universe, and the memorable human nature of the androids in it, is done remarkably well.

“You could build the same exact robot, but if it didn’t have the same veneer to it, it wouldn’t be as exciting to people,” he said. “It’s something that helps people recognize what’s under the hood - and the hard work behind it - even more so.”

Last year, students in Schneider’s lab on the Intel-Cornell Cup team also used a “Star Wars” theme in designing a virtual reality theme park ride and video game based on the “Star Wars” pod race from “Episode I: The Phantom Menace.” Developing the ride and game was a way for the students to learn a full range of systems engineering principles, from designing to testing to debugging to redesigning.

- Joe Wilensky