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The R2-D2 Builders Club takes Star Wars fandom to the next level

by Michelle Lanz | The Frame

R2 builder Mike Senna poses with his creations in his home in Yorba Linda, Calif. Michelle Lanz/KPCC

In the world of Star Wars fanatics, you have collectors, cos-players….and then you have people who take their fandom to the next level: Members of the R2-D2 Builders Club.

It’s an international community of Star Wars fans who dedicate countless hours — and dollars — to building exact working replicas of the lovable droid, R2-D2.  

The Frame’s Michelle Lanz met a few builders to find out what drives them to dedicate their lives to R2-D2.

One of the most beloved characters in Star Wars looks more like a trashcan or a mailbox than something with a charming personality.

https://youtu.be/hhwSbHytvuU?t=23s

R2D2 is the spherical droid that tools around with his humanistic droid pal C-3PO. They're the only non-human characters to appear in all seven films. But unlike other characters in the Star Wars saga, R2D2 has inspired thousands of fans to build working replicas of his likeness, down to the most minute detail.

Keri Bean is an engineer at NASA’s JPL and she's also a member of the R2D2 Builder’s Club.

"Star Wars was not my number-one obsession until about a year ago. There was the droid builders' room at the Star Wars Celebration and there were over 100 droids in the room. When I walked in I started crying and hyperventilating at the same time, I knew I had to start immediately," said Keri. 

Most members have been lifelong fans, but for Keri Bean, falling in love with R2 didn’t happen until she met him in person. Through an online forum, club members can buy and sell parts, read blueprints, download R2 voice files and troubleshoot problems with thousands of like-minded makers.

As new builders, Keri and her husband Jeff decided to build a prototype droid out of K'NEX, the children’s construction toy.

“All good engineers have test beds, so it’s a good test bed to figure out what the issues are not with K'NEX instead of later down the road when it’s an expensive aluminum build,” said Keri. 

Though building an R2-D2 has gotten easier thanks to the club, it can still take two to three years  to complete a full droid. That is, unless you’re longtime club member, Mike Senna, who completed his first R2 in just 11 months.  

“Being a geeky guy you’re not really social … Then I found the R2 builders club and I said look at these guys what a bunch of weirdos. And then of course the next day I started ordering parts,” said Senna. 

Now more than a decade after he first joined, Senna is a board member and regularly hosts meet ups at his house in Yorba Linda for other builders to show off their creations. But R2-D2 isn't the only robot Senna has built. 

Sitting in his living room are two R2s, a Wall-E, that lovable Pixar character, and a working BB-8, the new droid that appears in The Force Awakens. He first got a peek at BB-8 earlier this year during a fan gathering know as Star Wars Celebration. 

“I was right there in front dead center watching this thing roll out and my head just exploded. Just all the possibilities running through my head of how I’m going to create this in the real world,” said Senna.

It was this desire to see a fantasy in the real world that drove founder Dave Everett to start the club back in 1999. A fan of robotics, the Australia-based Everett had always loved R2D2 and decided one day that he would set out to make one of his own.

“I thought I might be the only person in the world that wanted to do something so ridiculous. It astonishes me how many people are interested in this idea," said Everett. 

The club now has 25,000 members, but only a small percentage have actually built R2D2s.

“My estimate is 600 completed robots around the world and that’s a lot, given that LucasFilm only built six for the original movie. I think we’ve done pretty well,” said Everett

The club has become so proficient in fact, that two members in the UK were hired by LucasFilm and Disney to build droids for "The Force Awakens." And for years the studio has been calling on members of the R2-D2 builders club to appear at promotional events.

When some of these R2s aren’t walking red carpets, their human masters take them to visit libraries and schools to inspire kids to take up robotics. But they also go to children’s hospitals to visit sick kids.  

"It's just a fantastic thing to take them out of that problem for a while, where they can see these magical characters that they never could have imagined that would meet. Really, very moving," said Everett. 

“Kids and adults, they just love R2, the character is very appealing," said Mike Senna. "That one big eye maybe, everyone like a big eye."

I know what you’re thinking: There’s no way a non-engineer could do this. But Keri Bean says members of the R2-D2 Builders Club are a diverse bunch.

“They range from being dentists to opera singers to full-time Silicon Valley engineer people. I think there’s even a 7-year-old kid building in the forum right now. Everyone can do it, you just have to want to do it.”

Club founder Dave Everett agrees.

“I think a lot of people imagine they can’t do something like that, but the reality is they can, so they should just start looking at it.  We’ve got members from diverse countries even in Iran. The longer you wait, the less time you’ll have with R2D2.”

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