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Attack of the Dinobots



First known for its cutting-edge space inventions, MacDonald Dettwiler Space and Advanced Robotics Ltd. (MD Robotics), a leading Canadian robotics company, recently had a chance to be involved in a more down-to-earth application. Their goal: to construct the best known of the horned dinosaurs, a Triceratops. By teaming up with renowned paleosculptor Hall Train, engineers at MD Robotics managed to build some of the most sophisticated and lifelike animatronic dinos ever made.

In 1996, Universal Studios' Islands of Adventure in Orlando, Florida, commissioned the Brampton, Ontario, company to supply three robotically animated Triceratops for an outdoor exhibit based on the blockbuster movie Jurassic Park. According to the park designer's plan, people would never be more than 2 meters away, so these dinobots had to look, feel, and act like real animals. By stretching a silicone and fiberglass shell over a robotic skeleton, the artist/engineering team managed to create a stunningly realistic illusion of a living, breathing dinosaur.

Tim Reedman, director of research and development at MD Robotics and chief engineer on the dino project, was in charge of design and manufacture of three replicate 9-meter-long, 3-meter-tall Triceratops dinosaurs. "We went straight from artistic requirements to joint and actuator requirements," Reedman explains. Through complex programming and smooth motion-control systems, each dinosaur was given a range of realistic behaviours such as dilating pupils, coordinated muscles, and tongue movement.

"The biggest challenge was working hand-in-hand with artists, translating their requirements into our engineering requirements," Reedman says. Building creatures for the entertainment industry to perform lifelike movements is quite different from the work they do for their other clients and very different from what most mechanical engineering graduates encounter. Yet it's all in a day's work when dealing with an entertainment-industry client. Elegance of design pays dividends in almost any application, but in the entertainment industry, outward appearances matter more than the elegance of the internal mechanisms. That's something that engineers working in the field might have to get used to.

Acting as a consulting dino sculptor, Train oversaw all the design's biological aspects, studying the motion of joints, body shape, and skin characteristics, with the goal of making sure that the final product was as accurate and lifelike as possible. Train had the engineers view stop-motion films of sculpted dinosaur models, showing the full range and speed of body motion. The engineers were then charged with translating this two-dimensional representation into a moving 3D skeleton of steel and aluminum.

Pursuing Passion

Reedman graduated from the University of Toronto with a degree in mechanical engineering and has now been working at MD Robotics--formerly SPAR Aerospace--designing and building spacecraft for over 17 years. Reedman has had the good fortune to be involved in many high-profile projects, including building the robotic arm manipulators, dubbed the Canadarm, for all the space shuttles and the international space station. More recently, he has been overseeing the design and construction of a repair robot named Dextre that may help rescue the aging Hubble Space Telescope.

"There's something exciting about finding out about where we came from, why the universe is the way that it is, and answering similar questions. Space missions are there to do that, whether it's the Hubble Space Telescope or the rover missions that are currently on Mars," he explains.

What advice does Reedman give to others wanting to follow in his footsteps? Early-career mechanical engineers should seek opportunities to work in teams. They should get involved with student societies and competitions that foster teamwork, project management, and innovative ideas. Reedman finds that being a member of a dynamic team is empowering and leads to better work than any one person can hope to do alone.

Any engineer with a traditional robotics background who wants to get involved in the entertainment industry also needs to be aware of current trends and interests. The release of scores of dinosaur movies and TV shows over the past decade has created a sizable and sustained demand for life-size replicas of extinct reptilian giants for amusement parks, museum exhibits, and TV documentaries. But early-career engineers should realize that it is only a niche market.

Train points out that success in this industry now relies heavily on networking and knowing the right people in the business. Many of the main entertainment companies have their own in-house robotics engineering teams--Disney, for instance, has its Imagineering Studio--but other studios, such as Universal, contract out their robotics needs.

Bright Future

Train also says that this market has a great potential for growth. He predicts that animatronics will eventually hit the home-consumer level as technology advances. The Holy Grail of animatronics is a true walking robot, but before this will be achieved, Train notes, some basic engineering problems will have to be solved. Control systems for walking will have to be improved, and energy supplies will have to be developed that offer longer duration and power. So there's plenty of work to be done.

The entertainment world has a particular fascination with bringing to life creatures both factual and fictional, and this involves more than just mechanical engineering as it's taught in university. Sometimes mechanical, electrical, and software skills aren't enough, according to both Reedman and Train. Sometimes engineers have to transcend their narrow technical training and take design cues from nontraditional sources. Working with some of the world's leading dinosaur experts helped Reedman and his team get a deeper understanding of realistic animal movement, making for a far superior product in the end. Train says that robotics experts who want to work with animal models need to have a deep fluency in biophysics and mechanics so that they can take their recreations to the next stage. The ultimate goal: a lifelike creature that can fool even the most discerning eye.

"Nothing compares to nature and its own intricate design," Train points out. "Understanding biomechanics can play a pivotal role in recreating motion in dinosaurs or any other moving organism."

For Reedman, having worked on an eclectic mix of projects involving clients from space to health and now the entertainment industry requires an understanding of people, particularly customers. Communication, whether it's internal or external, is the most important skill that a robotics engineer can bring to the workplace.

At the end of the day Reedman feels that he has built a unique set of robots, all of which share a technological heritage with the space industry. It is precisely the diversity of his background that has given him the confidence and engineering knowledge to tackle just about any project that comes his way.

For images, sound, and movies of the completed robotic Triceratops, visit MD Robotics' Web site.

Check out Hall Train's Web site.

The Canadian Space Agency lists all the universities across the nation that have robotics engineering programs.

Andrew Fazekas is Canadian Editor at Next Wave and may be reached at

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