“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” opens in theaters this December, but you don’t have to wait until then to get up close and personal with one of the movie’s new characters. Thanks to robot maker Sphero, fans can buy their very own version of BB-8, one of the astromech droids from the movie.
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I got my hands one of the new BB-8 robots, and after taking it for a test drive I wanted to find what makes it work as well as what makes it different from Sphero’s other rolling robots.
Although the BB-8 has a fancy droid paint job, a movable head piece and a new charging base, it’s very similar to the Sphero and Sphero 2 (SPRK Edition shown here). The BB-8 measures 2.9-inches in diameter, stands 4.5-inches tall and weighs about 7 ounces.
From left to right: Sphero SPRK Edition, Sphero BB-8 and Sphero. Bill Detwiler / TechRepublic
What really sets this robot apart from earlier Sphero products is the new Sphero BB-8 app, available on iOS and Android. Using the app, you can drive the BB-8 just like you would a regular Sphero, issue voice commands, have the unit follow pre-programmed commands (such as patrol) and even record as well as play messages that the app makes look like the holographic communications used in the Star Wars movies.
But just how different is the BB-8 from the older Sphero 2? To find out, we’ll need to crack it open.
Cracking Open the Sphero BB-8
Unfortunately, there’s no way to get inside the BB-8 without cutting through the hard, polycarbonate shell. I could have used a hacksaw or other blade, but chose to go with a rotary cutting tool and a diamond wheel. I also wore safety glasses and gloves.
Cutting open the Sphero BB-8’s polycarbonate shell. Chris McElhone/TechRepublic
With the BB-8 secured in a vice, I carefully cut around the middle of the sphere. I made sure not to insert the cutting wheel too deep inside the robot and damage any of the internal components. After a few minutes, I had sliced the outer shell into two halves.
Once inside the BB-8 shell, I was able to lift out the internal hardware, which is comprised of a plastic frame holding the circuit board, motors, drive gears, batteries and charging coil.
Removing the Sphero BB-8’s internal hardware. Chris McElhone/TechRepublic
The internal design of the BB-8 is very similar to that of the Sphero 2, with the addition of a mast that extends up from the center of the frame. Two magnets are located at the top of the mast. These magnets hold the BB-8’s head in place and allow it to move as the robot rolls.
To dissect the internals, I first removed the mast with attached magnets. After removing a pair of Phillips screws, I removed the main system board.
On the board, we find the BB-8’s brain, an ST Micro STM32 F3 MCU, which includes a 72MHz 32-bit ARM Cortex-M4 core. There’s also a CSR 1010 Bluetooth chip, ST Micro M24512-R 512 Kbit serial EEPROM, HUATAI HT6292 battery charger, gyroscope and accelerometer.
Removing the Sphero BB-8 main system board. Chris McElhone/TechRepublic
Next, I removed another pair of screws and part of the internal plastic body that covered the motors and batteries. A thin plastic piece that covers the batteries was next and then the two 3.7V 350mAh Li-ion batteries.
The BB-8’s two Standard Motor FP13-KT electric motors, drive wheels and axles came out next. And finally, I removed the receiver coil for the inductive charging system.
With our BB-8 looking a little like C-3PO after a visit to Cloud City, the teardown was complete.
The BB-8 is dissected. Chris McElhone/TechRepublic
What the teardown tells us
The Sphero BB-8 is basically a modified Sphero 2 with lots of Star Wars-themed add-ons, including the app.
The only two significant internal differences that I observed between the two robots were the mast and magnet assembly used for the BB-8’s head and a missing chip on the BB-8’s system board. The Sphero SPRK Edition has an ST Micro STM32F-100 MCU on the system board in addition to the main MCU. I suspect this extra chip helps the SPRK, which is designed to teach kids about robotics and coding, actually run the programs written by users.
All in all, the BB-8 was a lot of fun to crack open and even more fun to use. As Michelle Starr wrote in her CNET hands-on, the “Sphero BB-8 is the ‘Star Wars’ toy you’re looking for.”