Servo Programmer

To program our electronic, servo controlled automata we use two software applications: Visual Show Automation (VSA) by Brookshire Software and TrackSkull by MonkeyBasic, both rely on visual approach to animatronics rather than having to input code to program the servo movements.

The Visual Show Automation timeline is similar to an animation program, the horizontal bars (frames) on the computer screen define the position of each servo, the bar ends trigger the start/stop times creating the programmed movement of the automaton: e.g. head forward and back / side to side / left hand raised / right arm raised. As in animation, the bars can be repositioned, stretched or overlapped to change the sequence and timing of the motion. The servomotors, programmed at different forward and reverse speeds, alone or in unison, create the effect of an animatronic figure.

VSA works in tandem with TrackSkull to create more realistic animatronics by recording real-life motion of the servos using joysticks to “puppeteer” the automaton figure. The movements are recorded and imported into Visual Show Automation, saved to the controller board and replayed. We are able to change the movements of the automaton figure without completely redesigning the mechanism, giving creative freedom without technical limitations.

Cam Plotter

In addition to creating electronic servo-controlled automata, we have the ability to output the the programmed movements to a Cam Plotter of my own design. After each programmed movement has been recorded, the servo is connected to the Cam Plotter and played back. A pen is used to trace the movement of each programmed servo onto a paper disc, transferred to a wood disc, cut out with a scroll saw, then all are stacked together to make a cam controller. Brass levers follow the shape of the wood cam discs, which pushes/pulls the rods of the internal mechanism, producing the movements plotted by the recorded VSA program.

Upgrading the System

The laptop that has been used to run the servo programs over the last 14 years just failed, for this demonstration we resorted to a notebook which has very limited capabilities. We had been pushing the limit on the old system, both laptops and automation programs are still running XP and so will need to do a complete overhaul of our animatronic system.

After years of “making do” we look forward to the purchase of a new laptop and upgrading the animatronic programs, which also allows the use of the latest controller boards. We are grateful to the Rapid Returns grant project for providing this opportunity.

Created with the Support of Creative Pinellas and the Pinellas County Board of County Commissioners;
the City of St. Petersburg Office of Cultural Affairs and the St. Petersburg Art Alliance.