The robot formerly known as Astromech has a new name.
Cal Poly’s Robotics Club held a spirited naming session in spring as members took another step in the yearslong process of reimagining the iconic R2-D2 from “Star Wars.”
Professor John Seng, a computer science and computer engineering expert, launched the project post-COVID to reinvigorate the club he advises. Once members returned to campus, they unified around the idea of building an autonomous droid to the exact specifications of the movie version of R2-D2.
Last year, they completed the robot’s wood frame, added three wheeled legs and a metal dome and began calling him Astromech – a small, versatile droid in the “Star Wars” franchise that can fix and maintain starships.
They rounded out the year by giving the droid an official name in a complex process that spanned a three-hour meeting as members set voting rules and whittled down the list that started at 30.
Suggestions ranged from Steve and Nacho to Gregg and the eventual winner: Pascal, or more specifically R4-PAS.
“I think people ended up very happy,” said Col Cook, a third-year mechanical engineering major who is returning as a mechanical lead on the project. “There was a very clear winner.”
Pascal pays homage to actor Pedro Pascal, who plays Din Djarin in the “Mandalorian” TV series, and the programming language developed in 1970. The R4 designation describes a specific droid, designed for life outside the hangar bay, and the PAS adheres to the naming conventions of “Star Wars.”
“I like names that have a lot of different meanings,” Cook added. “It fits with the world of “Star Wars” and has a connection to the community of hobbyists.”
Seng spent a good part of last year tracking down parts from England to Ohio to construct Pascal, as Disney does not allow people to sell kits for astromech droids.
Hobbyists around the world have built specific pieces with measurements from the movie model, including the droid’s dome that Seng located and the club attached last spring.
“Instead of looking like a wooden skeleton, he looks like an astromech droid,” Cook said.
He also drives like a droid – a milestone the club reached during spring quarter.
“Everyone was excited when we got Pascal to drive for the first time,” said Seng, pointing to a large remote control with buttons, trigger and paddles that allow the droid to roll and spin. “It was definitely a breakthrough for the club.”
Over summer break, Seng enlisted his own kids – daughter Christine and son Timothy, a senior and freshman at San Luis Obispo High – to put the finishing touches on the lights and sound Robotics Club members had designed.
The Sengs programmed light sequences for the dome that rotates and added sound effects – whistles and beeps – and six songs including “The Imperial March,” Duel of the Fates” and “The Force Theme” – that play through car stereo speakers attached to each side.
They sent videos to club members showcasing Pascal’s new capabilities, delighting them.
“We all got a good laugh watching those videos; the sounds and songs are a lot louder than we thought they would be,” Cook said with a chuckle. “The effects add personality and allow for a whole different interaction with people.”
On a recent sunny morning, Cook and Seng rolled out Pascal for a spin around Engineering Plaza, captivating members of the campus community who quickly grabbed their cellphones to shoot video.
“We always cause a scene when we take him out,” said Seng, laughing.
Students approached the 3-foot-6-inch droid at once, sharing their reactions that ranged from awe to amusement.
“This is the coolest thing I’ve seen,” said one student with a big smile, while another said, “I’m geeking out right now. It’s like I just saw a celebrity.”
As Pascal entered the lobby of Building 192, yet another student remarked wryly, “I wasn’t expecting to see that this morning.”
Robotics Club members just had their first workday of the quarter in the Bonderson Projects Center, where about 20-30 students will gather on subsequent Saturdays to focus on mechanical and electrical components along with software and programming.
This year, members will add more controls to make Pascal easier to control, refine the inside and paint the outside with a Cal Poly color scheme. Next year, they will look at autonomous options.
“They have R2-D2 at Disneyland, and now we have our very own version here,” Seng said.
Pascal is getting out and about this fall to secure support and funds for the project.
The droid attended the Blue-Green rivalry matchup between Cal Poly and UC Santa Barbara men’s soccer teams at Mustang Memorial Field, where he visited the president’s suite to greet Cal Poly President Jeffrey D. Armstrong.
Pascal played his “Star Wars” music for Armstrong who accurately identified each song and corresponding movie scene, Seng noted.
The droid also wowed a crowd of young visitors during the Cal Poly alumni homecoming football game and is scheduled to make more public appearances in the months ahead.
People can give to the project by designating their donation as Robot Competition Support here.
By Emily Slater