Creating ‘opportunity’ – Georgia Southern Engineering Students Design Animatronic Eagle

When most people see him, they stop at least a few feet away. The pause allows them to consider how close they should get.

His eyes open and his head turns, scanning the room as if he’s looking for prey. His body stoops and rises, and his wings open and close. At times, he’s looking directly at you, and you sense he might be dangerous. Suddenly, his beak opens and he…speaks?

“We’re Georgia Southern! Our colors are blue and white…”

His name is Opportunity, and he’s an animatronic bald eagle created by engineering alumnus Eric Burns (‘16), engineering graduate student Conner Hughes, and several former undergraduate student team members. The project was part of their 2016 senior design course in mechanical engineering and was funded by an engineering undergraduate research grant.

“We set out to create an animatronic that’s as lifelike as possible — something that really captures people’s attention, something that you could mistake and look at and think it was maybe even Freedom,” said Hughes.

At first glance, many people assume it is Freedom, Georgia Southern’s bald eagle mascot. And while the finished product seems automagically assembled, building this complex animatronic eagle took a team of 15 students roughly six months of hard work to complete.

“You know that when you’ve seen an animatronic figure…you’re not necessarily thinking about engineering,” said Burns. “You’re thinking about whether or not you’re entertained by that thing. But the engineering is being creative enough to make something that’s completely fake — a whole robot — look like it’s real.”

To bring Opportunity to life, Burns managed three subteams — a controls team that worked on programming the eagle’s movements, a mechanical team that built the underlying structure, and an electrical team that made sure it would power up.

Working from a very basic eagle AutoCAD model they found online, the team created the frame by water jet, and 3D-printed 28 unique components, and also had to assemble a few hundred nuts, bolts, bearings and servo motors that make up its inner structure. Once created, the team had to run stress tests on the frame and components to ensure they could move and hold the weight of the head, neck and wings.

To bring the structure to life, Hughes had to program a microcontroller which would manipulate the motors controlling the skeleton. To mimic the movements of a real bald eagle, he found a YouTube video of two bald eagles interacting with a woman on her porch. He programmed each of the movements frame by frame, in milliseconds, with complex code.

“It was very tedious,” said Hughes. “I think the first version of the code that got everything moving and actually making noise was something like 1,200 lines long. And it took me 120 hours straight to get it all working.”

In addition, Hughes says there were several 11th- and 12th-hour problems to overcome, including a minor fire hazard, which they avoided with the help of electrical engineering students. Through it all, however, Burns and Hughes learned more about real-world engineering projects than they ever could’ve gotten from a lecture.

“You know, people talk about other schools having a better curriculum. …” said Burns. “But the truth of the matter is that everybody pretty much takes the same exact courses in order to get a degree in the state of Georgia. So it’s your extracurriculars that make you stand out.

“So if you get involved in undergraduate research, which is one of the best things you can be involved in, then you’re a step ahead of everybody when you walk across the stage and get your diploma.”

Opportunity travels with the Department of Mechanical Engineering to admissions events and area schools to raise student interest in science, technology, engineering and math fields. He makes different eagle sounds, occasionally makes Godzilla sounds, speaks along with an old Georgia Southern football commercial, and commands immediate attention wherever he goes.

Hughes is still working on the eagle as part of his master’s studies. He says it’s still hard work, but watching Opportunity in action is worth it.

“I think the most rewarding thing about the bird is getting to see the kids interact with it,” he said. “Actually getting to see the surprise on the kids’ faces when they find out that it’s an animatronic is absolutely priceless.”

– Doy  Cave