Robin Hiley is a volunteer at the Science Museum. Recently he was inspired by Eric – one of the key automatons in our Robots exhibition – to create his own mini version of Eric which looks and moves just like his larger counter-part.
Before the Robots exhibition opened back in February I joined a small team of volunteers working on producing ideas for object handling in the exhibition. This inspired me to make an automaton of my own – but what to make? Maybe toy horses that could race each other – or perhaps a beautiful mechanical flower that would open of its own accord. When I saw artist Giles Walker’s restored replica of Eric my decision was made. The Eric on display in Robots is a modern recreation of the UK’s first robot and was rebuilt by Giles with help from a Kickstarter campaign.
My resources are nowhere near the scale of Giles’s workshop, but I have built several 3D printers and thought I could use this technology to render something similar. I therefore planned a much smaller version, Little Eric, with a 3D printed skeleton, an Arduino microcontroller for a ‘brain’ and stepping motors for the movements.
I designed the skeleton parts using CAD (Computer Aided Design) then printed them in PLA (polylactic acid) plastic. I can’t claim to have got them all perfect the first time and there was a lot of prototyping (aka trial and error), but gradually Little Eric took shape. Several of the other volunteers helped me out with ideas and advice. Part of what makes being a Science Museum volunteer so much fun is the support and encouragement everyone gives each other.
The trickiest part was the standing mechanism. After some experiments I connected a fairly large stepping motor onto a shaft (all hidden in the wooden box you can see above), then drove the knee and hip joints from the shaft with toothed belts. You can print gears and belt sprockets quite easily using a 3D printer. At this stage I hadn’t designed his upper parts, so I estimated their weight and trialled loading the standing mechanism to make sure it would produce enough force for Eric to stand.
I like recycling materials where I can. Eric’s arms are driven by motors salvaged from old DVD drives, and the linkages to them are made from a length of titanium wire I found on a beach. I tried to make his ‘skin’ from old drink cans, but the aluminium used in these turned out to be too stiff and instead I used a more malleable material.
Little Eric has no voice yet, but I’m working on it…….
There are just 4 weeks left to see Robots at the Science Museum before it closes on the 3rd September.