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Matt Denton, who built Star Wars’ BB-8, creates giant robot spider



Matt Denton with Mantis
Denton standing in front of his creation,


  • Matt Denton is a British animatronics engineer who has
    made robots for “Star Wars,” “Harry Potter,” and “Jurassic
  • Denton was one of two engineers that built BB-8, the
    roller-ball droid from the new “Star Wars” films.
  • He has also built a giant spider-like vehicle named
    Mantis, the world’s largest hexapod robot.
  • Mantis can be driven from within a pod at the centre of
    its legs, moving at a gentle 1 km per hour.

Animatronics engineer Matt Denton has worked on some pretty
mindblowing projects. He’s built special effects robots for “Star
Wars,” “Harry Potter,” and “Jurassic World.”

But his latest project may just be his most ambitious yet. Denton
has created a huge, six-legged driveable robot that has been
compared to a spider. And it’s won him a Guinness World Record.

Denton was interested in robotics from an early age, “I was mad
for technical Lego,” he told Business Insider. In fact, he still
likes to build machines with Lego, as is attested by
his YouTube channel

“I always loved special effects in films, ‘Star Wars,’ ‘Blade
Runner’ and things,” Denton said, but he never thought he would
make a career out of it. Aged 20, Denton spent a summer working
for a special effects company and dropped out of university to
throw himself into the industry. He ended up carving out a niche
for himself making high-end control systems for film animatronics
and has now been in the business for 25 years.

Creating BB-8

Denton has turned his hand to some fantastical creations,
including a T-rex for “Jurassic World” and a six-legged tortoise
for “Harry Potter.” His most famous is BB-8, the tiny roller-ball
droid from the new “Star Wars” films. Denton made BB-8 along with
engineer Joshua Lee and two puppeteers, although he sometimes
steps into a puppeteering role himself.

BB8 Jordan Strauss AP
Denton built “Star Wars” drone BB-8.
Jordan Strauss/AP

A career highlight for Denton was surprising people at a panel
discussion ahead of the release of “The Force Awakens” with a
fully-functional BB-8. “Everyone had assumed BB-8 was CG
[computer graphics],” said Denton, who was controlling the droid
from the wings. “The crowd went nuts, it was a defining moment
and a great magic trick.”

You can watch the moment BB-8 surprises the crowd

Building a rideable robot spider

When he’s not bringing beloved film characters to life, Denton
gets down to some hardcore robotics. He recently won a
Guinness World Record
for building the world’s largest
rideable hexapod, called Mantis. In layman’s terms, that means he
built a massive, driveable, spider-like robot.

Mantis sunset
Mantis enjoying a
beautiful sunset.


Mantis is five metres in diameter, whereas BB-8 is about 0.5
metres, making Mantis about 10 times larger as its spherical
little brother. Denton told Guinness World Records that he first
became fascinated with walking machines when he saw the huge
mechanical AT-ATs in “The Empire Strikes Back.”

AT-ATs in “The Empire Strikes Back.”

Denton started building Mantis back in 2009, by which time he’d
already built 20 or so much smaller hexapods, including one for
“Harry Potter.”

The project started when Denton was approached by a company to
build a 200-tonne hexapod that would function underwater to
explore the seabed. Denton was interested in making Mantis as a
creative engineering project, as well as to trial-run any
problems he might encounter with the 200-tonne machine. In the
end, he got funding for both.

At the time he only had a basic knowledge of hydraulics, which
are a key component of Mantis, so he had to tackle a “massive,
steep learning curve.”

The underwater machine project was ultimately abandoned, as the
company opted for more traditional methods of sea-floor
navigation using tracks and wheels. But Denton kept going with
Mantis, and in 2012 it was completed.

How Mantis works

Mantis may be a gigantic robot spider (or technically an insect,
as it has six legs rather than eight) but it is surprisingly
light-footed for a machine weighing just under 2 tonnes.

Its weight is distributed such that each footpad exerts the same
amount of pressure as a human foot. It moves at just over 1 km
per hour, but Denton says it’s not about speed, but rather the
robots ability to navigate difficult terrain. Mantis can be
driven from inside the cab, or using a wifi connection.

Mantis foot up
Mantis is surprisingly


Since then Denton has taken Mantis to various festivals and
events, including Bestival, Electromagnetic Field Camp, and even
a forestry event in Sweden. But he doesn’t see Mantis as a
novelty and has been approached multiple times about repurposing
it for commercial interests.

Denton told Business Insider that he was approached by a
Brazilian gold mining company. They were interested in using
Mantis to navigate forested areas for drilling, without having to
chop down trees. The project never worked out, but it shows the
Mantis could have some practical use.

Mantis robot industrial landscape
has yet to find an actual commercial


With Denton currently working on “Star Wars: Episode IX” film, it
seems Mantis will be enjoying a well-earned rest. For a more
detailed (and highly technical) account of how Mantis was built,
you can check out Denton’s build diary.

Here’s the machine in action:

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