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Wolfgang Fink. Credit: UA Office for Research & DiscoveryIn three days “The Force Awakens.”

It’s undeniable the Star Wars franchise has had a lasting effect on popular culture, bringing science fiction to the mainstream and creating a sub-culture all its own.

In 1977, “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope” hit theaters. Despite studio expectations the film would flop, it ended up dazzling audiences. Among those watching in awe was a young Wolfgang Fink, who is now an associate professor of electrical, computer and biomedical engineering, and the Keonjian Endowed Chair of Microelectronics at the Univ. of Arizona.

“It was a great experience because I think Star Wars started a new genre of movie, the science fiction fairytale, if you will. It was very fascinating,” said Fink in an interview with R&D Magazine. “Star Wars was kind of always way ahead of its time in terms of new technologies.”

Consider the prosthetics featured in the films. After Luke Skywalker loses his arm in a lightsaber duel with Darth Vader in Cloud City, he is outfitted with a full-functioning prosthetic replacement that can sense pain. “We are just now—decades later—getting into that field (where) we have these functioning prosthesis,” said Fink, who in 2009 was a co-recipient of the R&D 100 Award and the R&D 100 Editor’s Choice Award for his work with the Artificial Retina prosthesis.   

Leading up to the “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” release, the Univ. of Arizona has created a series called “The Science of Star Wars,” in which researchers talk about the science and technology behind the franchise.

BB-8

Already stealing the hearts of fans, BB-8 is the new spherical astromech droid joining the franchise. But how would such a droid work in real life?

According to Fink, whose current work focuses on developing autonomous rovers for planetary exploration, BB-8’s spherical design is advantageous, as it would be able to traverse rugged terrain otherwise inaccessible to droids with designs like R2-D2’s.

Asked how he might build a BB-8 droid in real life, Fink had a couple suggestions.

Option one consists of a droid with a barbell-like body. The body is bisected by a steel bar that extends upwards and ends in the droid’s head. “Basically, it’s like a wheel or a yo-yo, if you will, where you can have the middle drive axis,” said Fink. “The problem is, of course, you wouldn’t be able to go immediately perpendicular to your drive direction without turning.”   

Option two boasts much more maneuverability. Inspired by circus ball walking, the design would feature sets of magnets—inside the droid’s head and body—capable of both repelling and attracting each other. As the magnet inside the head rotates backwards on a belt, the body would move forward. “In the end, it almost looks like Michael Jackson’s moonwalk,” said Fink.

However, the tricky part with option two would be designing magnets that repel and attract just enough to hit that sweet spot.

Coming full circle

Currently, Fink is in the throes of devising a new paradigm for planetary exploration. Called Tier-Scalable Reconnaissance, the new method hinges on creating autonomous robots capable of navigating an alien planet without human aid.

“In the past, there have been orbiters going around the planets, looking at the planets from a global scale at the expense of local perspective,” said Fink. “Then, on the other hand, we have very successful rovers on Mars which give you a very local view, which is great, but at the expense of a global view because it takes years to go a few miles. So you’re not able to circumnavigate…the entire planet.”

Fink’s concept consists of three tiers working in concert with one another. Spaceborne orbiters would look at the alien world from a global perspective, pinpointing anomalies of interest, such as craters or canyons. Once an anomaly is located, the orbiter would deploy an aerial platform, such as an air ship, into the planet’s atmosphere. The aerial component would descend into the anomaly and highlight areas of interest at the ground level, subsequently deploying a ground rover to inspect, and collect any specimens.   

Already, Fink has designed and built the rover component of the concept, which he described as mini-tanks with treads.

“In principle, these rovers can be commanded worldwide by the cloud,” said Fink. But since the cloud doesn’t exist on alien planets, the rovers will need to be commanded by the air ship. The concept is known as “autonomous telecommanding.”

Using Saturn’s moon Titan—an Earth-like celestial body with a thick atmosphere and cold temperatures—as an example, Fink said communications back to Earth would take at least three hours. In light of that, a deployed airship must be fully capable of making navigation decisions if any obstacles arise.

“And that loops all the way back to Star Wars,” said Fink.

In “The Empire Strikes Back,” the Galactic Empire sends out reconnaissance droids to multiple planets in search of Rebel Alliance bases. One such droid lands on the icy planet Hoth. “It did not have to be commanded by anyone and it autonomously scouted out the planets,” said Fink. “Only when it found something interesting did it report back to the humans.”

“That’s sort of the spirit of (Tier-Scalable Reconnaissance),” he said.      

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