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Disneyland Article
When Will Star Wars Droids Roam Freely Around Galaxys Edge

Star Wars Launch Bay
Orange County Register
Brady Macdonald
December 17, 2019
December 19, 2019
An orange and white maintenance droid named Jake wowed Disneyland visitors in 2017 as he roamed freely around Tomorrowland posing for photos with curious onlookers, speaking droid with Star Wars fans and even pausing for hugs from adoring kids.

Which begs the obvious question as we head into 2020: When will Jake and other autonomous droids start rolling around Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge in Disneyland?

Jake — or J4-K3 — already knows his way around Disneyland. Walt Disney Imagineering conducted a series of indoor play tests with Jake inside the Star Wars Launch Bay building in 2016. A year later Jake ventured outside for another round of outdoor play tests around Tomorrowland.

The J4-K3 droid, part of Imagineering’s autonomous character pilot program, has more sensors than a self-driving car, according to Walt Disney Imagineering research and development manager Ashley Girdich.

“Jake has many sensors on board that allow him to make decisions to determine where to go and how to move,” Girdich said via email.

Imagineering digitally mapped Tomorrowland for the play tests so Jake could “see” visitors moving around him and utilize computer algorithms to anticipate each person’s likely path. The digital map rendered park-goers in blocky figures and plotted their predicted paths using red and green arrows.

Jake’s onboard systems sent data back to an Imagineering computer that monitored the droid’s status and surroundings — from his location and direction to his motor function and battery power to his collision distance and ability to turn. Onboard sensors used 3D laser scanning technology to measure the distance between Jake and a constantly-changing set of potential obstacles.

During the tests, Jake appeared to recognize and interact with his surroundings — rolling up to control panels inside Launch Bay and marveling at R2-D2 and C-3PO in Tomorrowland’s Star Trader shop window. Jake even “talked” with a series of bleeps and bloops as his head moved and lights blinked on his body.

“The day he went live outdoors I was jumping, screaming and laughing,” Girdich said in the “One Day at Disney” docuseries on the Disney+ streaming service. “People were blown away. Everyone was trying to find how he was being controlled. He was his own character without a puppeteer in the background.”

Star Wars fans immediately fell in love with Jake. Adults stared in amazement. Teens whipped out their smartphones. Little kids assumed Jake was real.

“Jake definitely has his own personality and you can’t help but love him when you get to meet him and see him,” Girdich said in the Disney+ docuseries.

Disneyland visitors followed the 3-foot-tall droid around Tomorrowland, snapped selfies with him and carried on conversations with the robot. Fans hugged, kissed and — to Imagineering’s surprise — even climbed on top of Jake.

“When we were play testing Jake in the park we had a couple of children who would put their hands on his shoulder and just walk right alongside him,” Girdich said in the Disney+ documentary. “They see him as their friend and immediately take to him.”

Jake emits a range of emotions and expressions using his “eye” and the lights on his “head.”

“Jake uses sound, color and lights to communicate,” Girdich said via email.

A drooping head with a blue eye means he’s sad. A rocking head with a yellow eye indicates laughter. A red eye expresses anger. Flashing orange lights mean “backing up.” Flashing yellow signals Jake is “coming through.” Grey lights mean he just wants to be left alone.

Jake can even carry on a rudimentary conversation. A red eye with a shaking of his head left and right means “no” while a green eye with an up and down head tilt means “yes.” You might even get a more animated response — provided you speak droid. Jake has been programmed to make a statement (with a green eye) or ask a question (with a red eye).

“We would love to have our characters speak in what we call natural language processing,” Girdich said in the Disney+ docuseries. “It is still very difficult, especially in a theme park environment.”

The biggest challenge for Imagineering: Keeping Jake from rolling over the tiny toes of flip flop-wearing children in the sea of humanity constantly moving around Disneyland.

The J4-K3 Tomorrowland playtest at Disneyland was independent of any work being done on Galaxy’s Edge, according to Imagineering officials.

“Jake is an example of a technology currently in the exploratory phase, with no decisions yet on where or how we will use it,” Girdich said via email. “Tomorrowland was chosen as the location our Imagineers digitally mapped to test this technology.”

Imagineering has no current plans to use the autonomous character technology in Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge or with any particular character or type of character.

“We’re constantly updating him,” Girdich said in the Disney+ docuseries. “Right now what we’re trying to do is refactor some of his code so that he can work a little bit better than he has in the past. More responsive, more reliable.”
Attractions Referenced

Star Wars Launch Bay

Shops Referenced

Star Trader

Lands Referenced

Star Wars Galaxys Edge


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