- Matt Denton is a British animatronics engineer who has made robots for “Star Wars,” “Harry Potter,” and “Jurassic World.”
- Denton was one of two engineers that built BB-8, the roller-ball droid from the new “Star Wars” films.
- He has also built a giant spider-like vehicle named Mantis, the world’s largest hexapod robot.
- Mantis can be driven from within a pod at the centre of its legs, moving at a gentle 1 km per hour.
Animatronics engineer Matt Denton has worked on some pretty mindblowing projects. He’s built special effects robots for “Star Wars,” “Harry Potter,” and “Jurassic World.”
But his latest project may just be his most ambitious yet. Denton has created a huge, six-legged driveable robot that has been compared to a spider. And it’s won him a Guinness World Record.
Denton was interested in robotics from an early age, “I was mad for technical Lego,” he told Business Insider. In fact, he still likes to build machines with Lego, as is attested by his YouTube channel.
“I always loved special effects in films, ‘Star Wars,’ ‘Blade Runner’ and things,” Denton said, but he never thought he would make a career out of it. Aged 20, Denton spent a summer working for a special effects company and dropped out of university to throw himself into the industry. He ended up carving out a niche for himself making high-end control systems for film animatronics and has now been in the business for 25 years.
Denton has turned his hand to some fantastical creations, including a T-rex for “Jurassic World” and a six-legged tortoise for “Harry Potter.” His most famous is BB-8, the tiny roller-ball droid from the new “Star Wars” films. Denton made BB-8 along with engineer Joshua Lee and two puppeteers, although he sometimes steps into a puppeteering role himself.
A career highlight for Denton was surprising people at a panel discussion ahead of the release of “The Force Awakens” with a fully-functional BB-8. “Everyone had assumed BB-8 was CG [computer graphics],” said Denton, who was controlling the droid from the wings. “The crowd went nuts, it was a defining moment and a great magic trick.”
You can watch the moment BB-8 surprises the crowd here:
Building a rideable robot spider
When he’s not bringing beloved film characters to life, Denton gets down to some hardcore robotics. He recently won a Guinness World Record for building the world’s largest rideable hexapod, called Mantis. In layman’s terms, that means he built a massive, driveable, spider-like robot.
Mantis is five metres in diameter, whereas BB-8 is about 0.5 metres, making Mantis about 10 times larger as its spherical little brother. Denton told Guinness World Records that he first became fascinated with walking machines when he saw the huge mechanical AT-ATs in “The Empire Strikes Back.”
Denton started building Mantis back in 2009, by which time he’d already built 20 or so much smaller hexapods, including one for “Harry Potter.”
— Matt denton (@mantisrobot) September 18, 2018
The project started when Denton was approached by a company to build a 200-tonne hexapod that would function underwater to explore the seabed. Denton was interested in making Mantis as a creative engineering project, as well as to trial-run any problems he might encounter with the 200-tonne machine. In the end, he got funding for both.
At the time he only had a basic knowledge of hydraulics, which are a key component of Mantis, so he had to tackle a “massive, steep learning curve.”
The underwater machine project was ultimately abandoned, as the company opted for more traditional methods of sea-floor navigation using tracks and wheels. But Denton kept going with Mantis, and in 2012 it was completed.
How Mantis works
Mantis may be a gigantic robot spider (or technically an insect, as it has six legs rather than eight) but it is surprisingly light-footed for a machine weighing just under 2 tonnes.
Its weight is distributed such that each footpad exerts the same amount of pressure as a human foot. It moves at just over 1 km per hour, but Denton says it’s not about speed, but rather the robots ability to navigate difficult terrain. Mantis can be driven from inside the cab, or using a wifi connection.
Since then Denton has taken Mantis to various festivals and events, including Bestival, Electromagnetic Field Camp, and even a forestry event in Sweden. But he doesn’t see Mantis as a novelty and has been approached multiple times about repurposing it for commercial interests.
Denton told Business Insider that he was approached by a Brazilian gold mining company. They were interested in using Mantis to navigate forested areas for drilling, without having to chop down trees. The project never worked out, but it shows the Mantis could have some practical use.
With Denton currently working on “Star Wars: Episode IX” film, it seems Mantis will be enjoying a well-earned rest. For a more detailed (and highly technical) account of how Mantis was built, you can check out Denton’s build diary.
Here’s the machine in action:
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