By now, millions of moviegoers know the story of the clunky but lovable robot in the movie Wall-E. But not many know that the fictional character was brought to the big screen with the help of a real-life robot.
It doesn't have the animated hero's cute binocular eyes or its endearing personality, but the Mini-Andros, it seems, had all the right moves.
In the film, Wall-E works as a lone trash collector that was left on Earth after humans had abandoned the polluted planet. In real life, the Mini-Andros works as a bomb-defusing robot, but it was the robot's wheels that the Pixar teams was primarily interested in.
Developers at Pixar discovered the robot in 2005 when they reached out to the San Mateo County Bomb Squad to see if there was a prototype that the animators could use to help create more realistic movement for the film.
The Mini-Andros was the unit's only robot at the time, a 12-year-old model the technicians had hoped to scrap once enough money was raised to buy a new one.
"The developers wanted more of a vintage looking robot, and after I told them about the older robot, they said that's the one they were looking for," said Sgt. Mark Duri, who is in charge the robot's maintenance.
Duri then trucked the robot to the studio in nearby Emeryville, where hours were spent snapping photographs and videotaping the way it moved up and down stairs. "They were interested in how the camera worked, just the motion of it all," said Duri. "Most robots don't have these kinds of tracks anymore."
The San Mateo County's Sheriff's Office had acquired the Mini-Andros in 1983 to help the squad defuse dangerous situations with minimum danger to humans.
"The reason why we have the robot is so that the bomb technician doesn't have to put on a bomb suit and it provides another option to render explosive devices safe," says Duri. "None of police departments had bomb-defusing robots at the time, and we were fortunate enough to be one of the first in the Bay Area to get them."
Duri believes that the robot, which he estimated to have been called to duty between 50-75 times, appears to be nearing the end of its usefulness. Newer models, he says, can handle more situations, such as chemical, biological and even nuclear explosives. "They're also bigger, more sophisticated and are capable of more arm movements," he said. "The new robots are a lot more athletic than the robots from back then."
And although the robot has never malfunctioned, he says it has broken down occasionally. When that happens, it needs to be taken apart and serviced. And getting the parts, he added, is "hard."
The department has recently added a bigger, newer robot, but would still sometimes turn to the Mini-Andros to squeeze into tighter spaces and get them out of a jam.
The bomb squad technician says he appreciates what the Mini-Andros has done for him and his colleagues over the years, pointing out that it probably has saved a few lives.
Duri has yet to see the movie, but plans to catch it within the next few weeks.
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