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R2-D2 Gets Real: 'Star Wars' Droids Already Exist

'Star Wars' Droids

R2-D2

R2-D2 is a so-called astromech droid in the 'Star Wars' films.
(Image credit: Lucasfilm/20th Century Fox/The Walt Disney Company)

It's safe to say that the robots from the "Star Wars" movies have left a huge cultural impact. Even people who aren't diehard fans will likely remember C-3PO, R2-D2 and many of the other mechanical creatures that lived in George Lucas' rich universe.

These sci-fi creations provided a glimpse of how robots could be used in the future, but how close is the world to making its own R2-D2 a reality?

Actually, several "Star Wars"-like technologies already exist. From medical bots designed to keep you healthy to drones for hunting down "Rebel scum" to artificial intelligence that can drive a car or fly a plane, robots are no longer just the stuff of science fiction. [Science Fact or Fiction? The Plausibility of 10 Sci-Fi Concepts]

Here are some of the most memorable bots from "Star Wars," and their real-life counterparts:

Driving Droids

RX-24 Droid & Google's Self-Driving Car

The RX-24 droid (left) from 'Star Wars,' and a view inside Google's self-driving car (left).
(Image credit: Anita Rahman)

What's the difference between a droid and a robot? Besides "droid" being a term trademarked by George Lucas, droids, as portrayed on film, have far more independence and intelligence than most robots that exist today. While some robots have a limited artificial intelligence that allows them to make lower-function decisions, most require direct commands from a human in order to work.

While many researchers are trying to develop artificial intelligence (AI) that can handle more-complex problem solving and can adapt to different environments, the world is still a long way from having a robot with the same level of intelligence as R2-D2.

Still, the field of robotics has made significant gains. If you were one of the millions who rode the "Star Tours" ride at Disneyland before 2011, you may remember RX-24, the pilot droid tasked with flying riders to the forest moon of Endor. However, things go awry during the ride after RX-24 gets caught in a fight between the Rebels and the Empire.

While RX-24 was a terrible pilot, developers are currently working on creating a robot that can actually handle the perils of driving and flying. For example, Google is testing a self-driving car that can operate safely and autonomously in regular traffic. The vehicle uses laser technology and a system of sensors to generate a 3D map of its environment, which enables the car to drive itself.

The AI is a work in progress, and Google's driverless car still requires a "backup" human driver to ride along and make sure nothing goes wrong. But if tests go well, self-driving cars could rule the streets in the near future.

In another case, a South Korean tech developer has taken a small humanoid robot (known as the Bioloid Premium) and programed it so that it can fly a plane, reported IEEE Spectrum. The modified robot (dubbed PIBOT) uses visual sensors to track GPS location, airspeed and other factors necessary for flying properly. The robo-pilot has been tested on a flight simulator, and passed with flying colors, IEEE Spectrum said. Footage of the simulated flight will be presented at an upcoming robotics conference. [The 6 Strangest Robots Ever Created]

Scout probes

Viper-Series Probe & Drones

A Viper-series probe (left) from 'Star Wars,' and one of the U.S. military's MQ-1 Predator drones (right).
(Image credit: Anita Rahman)

If it weren't for a so-called probe droid, the Rebels may have been able to keep their base in the Hoth system safe in "Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back." At the beginning of the film, Darth Vader releases a fleet of Viper-series probesacross the galaxy. One drone lands on the planet Hoth and discovers a power generator, which leads to the discovery that Rebels have established a base on the distant planet. Vader and his armada lead a heavy assault against the Rebels' base to wipe them out.

While the hover tech on the Viper-series drone is more advanced than that of drones are available today, the sci-fi bot shares some similarities with real-life robotic flyers. Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), in the military and commercial market offer many of the same reconnaissance features as Vader's scouts. Most drones are flown by pilots remotely, but have limited AI for tasks like landing or tracking subjects.

While many developers are trying to make drones more self-sufficient, many academicsand industry commentatorshave argued against installing drones with any form of advanced AI. Many of these experts worry that an advanced AI for military drones would increase civilian casualties, as well as remove the moral costs of war, thus increasing the potential for countries to invade without worrying about casualties. It's possible the world could see smarter drones in the near future, but it's uncertain whether the military would actually use them.

Medical droids

2-1B Droid & Medical Robot

A 2-1B droid (left), and a robotic surgical assistant developed by Intuitive Surgical, Inc. (right).
(Image credit: Anita Rahman)

In "Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back," a 2-1B medical droid nurses Luke Skywalker back to health by keeping him in a tank full of a substance that can rapidly heal wounds. While this material, called "bacta" in the film, and the 2-1B droid are not real, advancements in medical technology are introducing robots into doctor's offices and hospitals.

For example, engineers at École Polytechnique de Montréal  have been working on creating "microbots" that can roam the human body and perform delicate tasks, such as clearing arteries, sealing wounds and exploring the artery system.

In the movie, the 2-1B has an independent artificial intelligence, meaning it can function much like a human doctor. While existing robots do not have sophisticated AI that enables them to stand in for real physicians, many devices have been built to allow doctors to attend to patients remotely. The Robotic Nursing Assistant, for instance, helps physicians use extremely accurate tools to treat their patients, while the other telemedicine assistants let doctors virtually care for their patients, even across great distances.

There are also some attempts to use AI in hospitals. At the Mayo Clinic, IBM's world-renowned AI Watson, the computer that famously won the quiz show "Jeopardy!", is being used to search through medical databases to find people with particular conditions to take part in medical trials.

Astromech droids

R2-D2 & NASA's SPHERE Robot

The memorable R2-D2 droid (left) from 'Star Wars,' and NASA's SPHERE robot (right).
(Image credit: Anita Rahman)

Who doesn't love R2-D2? In the "Star Wars" universe, this small, cylindrical robot has more functions than a Swiss Army knife, and more personality than a robot that speaks only in "beeps" and "boops" should have. R2-D2 is known as an astromech droid, which is a type of multifunctional robot that can respond to a diverse range of problems. [Super-Intelligent Machines: 7 Robotic Futures]

While it's easy to build a working replica of R2-D2, there are no R2 units that truly function as they were imagined in the "Star Wars" films. The closest thing is a bot developed by NASA in 2006 to perform maintenance in microgravity. The so-called SPHERE(short for Synchronized Position, Hold, Engage and Reorient Experimental Satellites) is a bot that helps astronauts with docking operations, along with satellite servicing, assembly and emergency repairs. The bot resembles the training droid that Luke Skywalker fights in "Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope," but has the functionality of an R2 unit.

Protocol droids

C-3PO & Humanoid Robots

C-3PO (left) from the 'Star Wars' films, and Honda's humanoid Asimo bot (right).
(Image credit: Anita Rahman)

R2-D2 never goes anywhere without his neurotic friend C-3PO.

This robot is a protocol droid, which is a humanoid-esque machine designed to break down communication barriers and act as servant, translator or companion. Unlike R2, C-3PO is designed for the explicit purpose of understanding humanoids and communicating with them.

The most famous real-life humanoid bot is Honda's Asimo, a bipedal robot designed to move similarly to humans and resemble them in other ways. Asimo can physically respond to human actions as well as respond to human voices. The robot performs a variety of functions, including playing soccer, gesturing, reading faces and moving around in its environment. Asimo has limited language abilities, and can only respond to audible commands with short phrases and physical gestures.

If you want something with more "conversational" ability, look to Japan's Otonaroid. This android is one of two bots that have been "hired" to work in Tokyo's National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation. Otonaroid will be able to converse directly with visitors, while her "sister" android, Kodomoroid, will continuously read aloud world news reports. The robots don't generate their own voices, though; the bots are simply the mouthpieces for human operators. Similar tech is used to control "Crush the Turtle" at the "Turtle Talk with Crush" attraction at Walt Disney World's Epcot theme park.

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