Integrating engineering and the arts: A look at the robots of ‘Heddatron’

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Each robot in ‘Heddatron’ is uniquely built in order to serve a symbolic purpose within the storyline. (Photo Courtesy of Jeffrey Helm)

Danielle Mullan

“Heddatron”, the college’s current theater production, features a number of talented actors. Alongside them, audience members will find it hard not to notice five robots, built by mechanical engineering professor Jeffrey Helm.

The play explores grief through the eyes of a young girl, Nugget, with the help of the robots and a performance of the Norwegian play “Hedda Gabler.”

Much like the robots, Helm’s career is a case study on the intersection of theater and engineering.

“I have a degree that was in technical theater. I used to do it professionally, but then I went back to school and got all my degrees for mechanical engineering”, Helm said. “I came to Lafayette because I really wanted to teach, and I really wanted to teach mechanical engineering.”

Since tenured, Helm has been able to work alongside theater on campus, even before the department officially existed.

“When I first started doing this stuff, there was no theater department, it was part of the English department. And so they were growing and needed people that could do things for the theater, so I was able to pick up either an acting spot or a design spot basically every year,” Helm said

Predating the engineering design, Helm had to first explore the role that these robots would play in production. With the help of Emma Weaver ‘20, a mechanical engineering student who also plays Nugget, he spent the fall semester investigating how to best represent the robots. The robots’ appearance, Helm said, was subject to many rounds of brainstorming,

“Part of the difficulty of that is that this takes place in 2006…we already had iRobot, we already had all the Star Wars, there was a host of movies where robots had capabilities that we could never hope to reach on stage. And we did not want to look like we were doing a bad imitation of those,” Helm said.

Helm and Weaver’s solution was to have Nugget construct the robots herself, allowing Helm to tap into the 1960s-themed, more simplistic aesthetic of robots that makes sense within the context of the plot. 

“When you analyze a script to do a design, it is very much an engineering exercise, as much as some of my colleagues would not want to hear that in the theater department,” Helm joked.

Each robot then became a visual representation for their symbolic purpose within the storyline.

Building each robot to be unique meant that their bases had to be where the main engineering design would take shape. The robots are controlled by a drone-like remote.

“Basically the way this works is, there are two big motors in the front to the front wheels and it’s tank steering…it also means that basically everything turns right about this point so if you watch the robots when they move you will see that they will literally turn on a dime,” Helm explained.

The controls are able to mix the two channels of vertical and horizontal motion to achieve apparently seamless motion. The bases also allow for voices to be clearly projected from the robots.

“The other thing in the base is an Arduino…it makes the annunciator…flash in time to the voice of whoever the robot operator is. The speakers tend to be very directional, so if the robot is not pointing towards you, it can be very hard to decide which robot is talking, but if you give the audience a visual queue that will help them out,” Helm said.

Helm stressed that one of the main features of the robots is their level of safety.

“One of the very first considerations, and this is very much engineering, is safety. Built into this is what we would call a safety loop and the end result is that there are basically four ways that the robot can be shut off such that it can’t move,” Helm said.

“This is one of the real benefits of being at a school like Lafayette, you can get these places where you merge the different disciplines together to come up with something that no one should have done or could have done on their own,” Helm said.

He added that he looks forward to working with the theater department many more times in the future. 

“Heddatron” will be showing tonight and tomorrow night at 7:30 pm in Buck Hall.