Droid maker and BB-8 fan inspires others to build

From the moment he first rolled across the screen in 2015, the plucky, orange, soccer ball-shaped droid known as BB-8 stole the hearts of Star Wars fans. He’s since become as iconic as his lovable predecessor, R2-D2.

While most people are content to admire Poe Dameron’s BFF from afar, a few ambitious fans aren’t satisfied with that and have set out to build their own version of the adorable astromech.

After growing up with Star Wars, Jessica “Psy” DeLacey found a renewed love for the fandom when The Force Awakens was released. BB-8, in particular, captured her heart. She almost immediately began Googling to see how she could make a droid of her own.

Psy’s special BB-8 saga is detailed in “What We Build,” the fourth episode of the recently released docuseries Looking for Leia. (You can check it out on syfy.com.) She is featured along with other women who have bravely ventured into the often male-dominated hobby known as “droid building.”

A maker since childhood who has built everything from guitars, to bicycles, to a pneumatic tube system, Psy still had a lot to learn to bring her rolling, beeping, screen accurate BB-8 from dream to reality.

The process of creating her droid involved tons of Internet research, watching YouTube videos, the purchase of her first 3D printer and many other fun tools, a lot of trial and error, learning everything from coding to electronics, and generous help from fellow builders.

Psy and BB-8 are now proud members of Sacramento’s Sacastromech Astromech Builders club, as well as the Bay Area Droid Builders group. They attend lots of STEM, comic, science, and maker conventions, where Psy does her best to encourage young girls and women who are interested in droid building, but may feel too intimidated to consider trying it.

I recently chatted with Psy about her experience as a first-time droid builder, why the Star Wars droids are so beloved, her obsession with pneumatic tubes, and what advice she would give women who want to build their own astromech buddy. As a bonus, there are photos of her adorable BB-8 unit below. If you’d like to see more, you can follow Psy on Instagram and Twitter

Jessica “Psy” DeLacy with the BB-8 she built.

You’re a maker and droid builder who is a member of the Sacastromech and Bay Area Droid Builders clubs and was featured in the recent docuseries Looking for Leia. What’s your background in making/building? Where did you learn the skills you use in your various projects?

Really, I just Googled everything. Everything. At one point, I Googled “how does a battery work,” because I literally started from absolute zero in terms of knowledge on this topic. But I have always made things, since I was a little kid, so I wasn’t afraid to dive in and get my hands dirty! When I started building BB-8, I was spending my weekends designing and welding bicycles, so I am no stranger to creating things. That definitely helped.

How did you come to be featured in Looking for Leia, which is a wonderful Syfy Wire documentary about women in Star Wars fandom?

A friend of mine from the Bay Area droid building group, BADroidBuilders, connected me to Annalise! We met up at the very beginning of BB-8 building so that she could get some footage, and then about two years later, she came to SJCC to film my finished BB-8.

What do you remember most about the experience of being filmed for the series?

I remember really wanting to show people that droid building isn’t scary or intimidating, and that I wanted to be honest about the process. I had only kind of cleaned off my desk when Annalise and her crew came to film, because I wanted it to feel real — I wanted to show people that here I was, at a desk in my house next to where we keep the cereal, building robots.

Obviously, you have now had the chance to view the fourth episode, “What We Build,” which you are featured in. What was it like watching that?

It was so surreal. It didn’t register to me that I was watching it on TV, I was just like, “Hey, that’s me, neat,” and not having any concept of the fact that other people were also probably watching it. I also felt really humbled to be featured alongside builders like Naila (Browne) and Christina (Cato) — they had been my inspiration since I started building, and being on screen with them was amazing.

Have you gotten a lot of reactions from people since Looking for Leia debuted?

Yes! That was the part that made me realize, “Oh, right, this did actually happen!” A lot of people reached out after they saw me, including people that I didn’t realize would be watching, so that was really cool. My favorite were people who reached out specifically to say that they were inspired to build, or that their daughters were inspired to build. That was such a cool feeling.

In the episode, you say that Star Wars has always been part of your life, but it wasn’t until The Force Awakens that you got really excited about it. And that was primarily because of BB-8. What is it about this particular droid that, as you say, “captured your heart”?

I guess maybe it was love at first sight? I have no idea what it was about BB-8, but that little derpy soccer ball stole my heart. I do think that The Force Awakens was also a huge contributing factor as well, because it was such an amazing film, and seeing someone on screen like Rey was a huge deal to me. So I loved everything about the film, I loved that it was kind of bringing Star Wars back and setting the stage for the next generation of fans, and then BB-8 was just the cherry that rolled in right on top of everything.

In the doc, you recall telling your sister, “I’m gonna make a BB-8.” Where did that idea or impulse spring from?

Whether it’s a strength or a weakness, I’ve always done things like that. So after seeing the film and realizing that I wanted a BB-8, but that I wanted a real, actual BB-8, and learning that the only way to get one was to make one, I knew what I had to do. So here we are.

Psy with the Bay Area Droid Builders and Brian Herring, who operated BB-8 in The Force Awakens.

You did some Googling and decided to join a droid building club. What were those early days like as you became acclimated to droid building?

There was reading. There was so much reading. I read through every forum post, every build log, and every Facebook post that I could find. Then I read them again. I even took notes — I wanted to make sure I had a sense of what I needed to know, do, and learn to do this. So I think I spent a solid month just absorbing information and writing down what I found. I should have just written a thesis on BB-8 building right then and there. And then, I bought a (3D) printer, and just started making things.

You mentioned in Looking for Leia that going into a droid building group can be intimidating for women. Did you experience that at all?

I’ve always been very lucky, and also very headstrong, so I didn’t experience that sort of intimidation. My groups were (and are!) very kind, welcoming people, that never treated me any differently because of my gender or level of experience. But I am also used to just kind of inserting myself into situations and just going with the flow — my mom was the one that pointed out in a group photo that is was me and all of these other guys in the group, and it wasn’t until she did that I really started thinking about how that is intimidating to get into.

When you decided to build your BB-8, you bought a 3D printer. What equipment, materials, tools, etc., have you amassed since then?  

Two more 3D printers! And also everything else, like digital calipers, various drill bits and taps, orbital sanding attachments, epoxies, respirators, all of the orange spray paint in the store, tape, glue, half of McMaster Carr’s screw inventory, sanding blocks and bits, paint brushes, a soldering iron, Arduino boards, various gauge wiring, wire cutters and strippers, more tape, various motors and servos, chains and belts for those motors, Dremels and their attachments, sketchbooks, notebooks, toolboxes, band-aids, tape measures, heat inserts, LEDs, various candy from ServoCity orders, chemicals, a vice, resin, lead shot, and a screwdriver shaped like R2, to name a few things.

Could you walk us through the general process involved in building a droid?

The short version is learn, try, fail, learn, try again, succeed. I always break everything down into chunks so that I can focus on one particular thing. For instance, when I needed to learn Arduino for the drive system, the first thing I did was watch a bunch of YouTube videos and read various tutorials on Arduino just to get introduced to it.

Then, once I felt comfortable with it, I started looking at the code for BB-8 and going through it based on what I had learned. If I got stuck, I would Google the problem. I finally got to a point where I understood it enough to make modifications and upload it to a board, but then nothing worked, and I had to figure out why, so I went down another Google rabbit hole of Arduino.

Once I diagnosed that, I was able to successfully upload my code, and then continue to make changes to it, and understand what it all does. It’s certainly not a quick process — you have to have patience and persistence.

What have you learned from droid building?

Everything about building a droid! I learned 3D printing, robotics, soldering, electronics, finishing work … I learned all of it. I also got to practice some of my other skills, like mechanical modeling, which has been nice.

What do you most enjoy about the process? What tends to be the most challenging part for you?

I enjoy that most of it is done by hand. I love just sitting and building parts, especially the drive system, because it’s a lot of tinkering and assembling and it feels like an art form. The programming is still challenging to me, because of some of the math that goes into balance and stabilizing — the nice thing about everybody working on these droids independently is that there is someone that can figure out, or help with really anything, so I haven’t had to do any crazy physics on my own just yet.

How many droids do you have now? Tell me a little about them. 

Right now it’s just BB-8. CB-23 and D-O are on the horizon, as is BB-9E, but unfortunately needing to sleep really cuts into my free time.

As a member of Sacastromech and Bay Area Droid Builders, you visit many different types of conventions and events. What do you do there? What do you enjoy about it?

We go to a lot of STEM, comic, science, and maker conventions. If it’s something like Maker Faire, I really try to have the focus be on how BB-8 works and show off the internals and the process, but at something like comic con, it’s more about giving people the opportunity to take photos and meet the character.

I am always happy to answer questions and explain how he works, so it’s a lot of that! Meeting and inspiring people is my favorite part of that, and also seeing people really fall in love and interact with BB-8. Kids will run right up to him, hug him, and talk to him, and even adults get really into it when they see him in person.

In the doc, you say that one of the things you like best about droid building is inspiring young girls to say, “Hey, I can do this too.” How do you try to encourage or positively influence the girls you meet at conventions and events?

I always encourage them to ask questions, and I tell all of them that I’m not an engineer or a roboticist, I’m and artist, and if I can do this, anyone can. I also ask how they would build it, or how they think he works, just to get them to start thinking about it.

Mostly I just try to be myself and not make a big deal out of it — I tell them it’s a lot of work, but so are a lot of things people do, and that if this is something they love, they can definitely do it too. I hope that they see me there in my Star Wars shirt with my BB-8 bracelet and realize that Star Wars can be for anyone, and that if they want to do something like this, they absolutely can.

You make/build a lot of other things besides droids, including guitars, bicycles, enamel pins, cosplay and costumes. You also do a lot of drawing and 3D printing. Tell me about a few of your favorite non-droid projects. 

Baking! And I do consider that making, because it’s the same principles and same art form, but in a faster (and tastier) format. Baking led me to one of my favorite projects, which was figuring out French macarons and experimenting with weird flavors. My weirdest (and most popular) to date is Flaming Hot Cheeto, which I made back in January of 2016, and now has become a yearly tradition.

But the bicycles are always going to be one of my biggest loves. Brazing metal is so relaxing, and it’s very zen to be in a shop building something out of steel, and then hopping onto that thing and riding off into the sunset.

What are your favorite fandoms aside from Star Wars?  

Funny enough, I am not really a part of any fandoms outside of Star Wars!  BB-8 takes all of my time, so I blame him.

In your social media profiles, you mention that you’re a “pneumatic tube enthusiast.” That really sparks my curiosity. Please explain. 

Pneumatic tubes are just neat, and if I were in charge of the world I would definitely have them in more places — rest assured the first thing I am going to do when I buy a house is install one of those suckers. I built one at work a few years back, because hey, why not? That “SSSSHHHHNNNNKK” sound when the carrier goes through the tubes is so satisfying.

What’s left on your droid building bucket list?  

Definitely the ones mentioned before, CB-23, D-O, and BB-9E. I think R2 would be fun as well, but I’ll have to have the space for him first!

Now for a couple of fun droid-related questions:

Name your Top 5 droids of Star Wars.

BB-8 (I mean, come on.)

D-O

K2SO

R2-D2

CB-23

What do you think about the new droids we’ve been introduced to recently, like IG-11, D-O, and BD-1?

I am stoked to see more droids, especially those that bring in new fans! IG-11 was refreshingly hilarious, and was also such a different design in terms of movement compared to what we have seen before, so that was really neat. D-O, of course, I have a huge soft spot for, and I like that he helped start a discussion on boundaries and consent when he responds after Rey reaches out to touch him — there’s so much that can be said about that. And BD-1 is awesome, as I have seen a lot of them come into the droid building spotlight recently!

Why do you think people love the Star Wars droids so much?

There’s something endearing about them, and also something universal. They speak Droid, so they have to communicate with sounds and body language, and everyone can understand what they are trying to convey. They’re also typically kind and loyal, much like dogs, so I think they poke that part of our brains. And they’re largely non-threatening — BB-8 is ball. A totally, non-scary, happy orange ball. What’s not to love about that?

What advice do you have for readers — particularly women — who might be interested in getting into droid building?

My advice would be to not be afraid to fail, and don’t be afraid of what other people think, as I feel like those are the two biggest things holding people back. I hear people say, “Oh, I could never do that,” but these are people who have done things much harder than that already, whether they realize it or not.

And if you really think that, why? What’s stopping you from learning? Are you afraid of looking silly? ‘Cause hey, I’m pretty sure I looked silly for a minute, but never once did anyone say anything to me about it, and now maybe I still look silly, but I have a BB-8.

“It’s a lot of time,” sure, it is a lot of time. But if you work on it for 30 minutes a day, that adds up. “It’s expensive.” Yes, it is, but no more expensive than any other hobby you do consistently if you break it down month by month, and you don’t have to spend thousands of dollars. “I’m scared to ask for help,” if you are intimidated for any reason, come join the Stardust Builders, who are all people that identify as women, and any of us will help you. If this is something that you really, truly want, you can make it happen.  If I can do it, anyone can.

 

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