It’s probably not a stretch to say that the droids of Star Wars, like R2-D2 or C-3P0, are some of the most famous robots in science fiction. But how feasible are these iconic droids in real life?
Robin R. Murphy, a researcher at Texas A&M University, looked at how realistic some of the Star Wars robots are. In a study published today in the journal Science Robotics, she concluded that while having an intelligent, sentient robot buddy fix your spaceship might be a little beyond today’s science, there are parts of Star Wars’ droids that do hold up in the real world.
Chief among those is how they communicate. While some droids in Star Wars talk out loud in regular English, most of the robotic characters use nonverbal communications instead. And the chirping and warbling from droids like BB-8 or R2-D2 to indicate feelings or thoughts without spoken words are effective for real-life nonverbal robotic communications too, according to studies done by researcher Robin Read.
On a purely nerdy note, though, I would respectfully disagree with Murphy’s classification of R2-D2’s beeping as nonverbal communication. Per Star Wars canon, the beeps and whistles of droids are actually a language known as binary (unrelated to the binary numeric system that serves as an underlying component of our own universe’s digital coding). Those chirps can be understood by human characters, or translated back into English through written or verbal translations. It is true, however, that Star Wars viewers aren’t fluent in the fictional languages of droids, so the original point that the nonverbal contextual beeps are a useful means of communication still stands.
Less feasible is how the Star Wars droids move, according to Murphy. Apparently, as adorable as it is to see BB-8 roll around the desert hills of Jakku in the movie, that kind of spherical method of movement doesn’t apply to real world physics. “Anyone who has driven a car on a beach knows how quickly wheels can become buried in the sand and spin in place,” the study says.
Research from Dan Goldman and Yasemin Ozkan Aydin at Georgia Tech proves this: they placed a BB-8 toy in a bed of glass particles, and the robot couldn’t move. If you want to see for yourself, YouTube is full of enterprising BB-8 owners who are happy to debunk how the ball-shaped robot rolls.