Arduino Animatronics: Deck-out Your Holiday Displays

DIY lights, action and sound for all your holiday spirit

Like many others, my first brush with animatronics came at Disneyland. From the spooky spirits in the Haunted Mansion, the Tiki Room Tucans, to the statesmen in the Hall of Presidents, the life-like moving robots ignited a generation to an unthought-of level of creativity. Others like a young Steven Spielberg who gave a first animatronics glance to millions. Remember the line, "we're gonna need a bigger boat," right after the animatronic Great White Shark appeared?

Whether you want silly, scary or uber cool, we're going to show you how to get started in pimping your costumes and decorations for any time of the year using the open-source Arduino microcontroller. Note: "Jaws-like" animatronics are usually done with hydraulics, high-pressure waterjets and steel I-beams, but why limit yourself?

Disney Animatronics Abraham Lincoln
Disney Animatronics Abraham Lincoln

Which Arduino and Why?

Arduino is the project brain and is essentially a small computer with an easy-to-use cross platform programming language. Its accessibility allows the user to create interactive objects based on sensory inputs. You can make an LED fade or move a servo when you push a button or have it do something more complex like control a robot with sensor inputs. The applications are endless and because its open-source, you can find literally thousands of cool projects online.

The best thing about Arduino is its ease of use! Open the Arduino software, add (or write) your code (called a sketch), verify (compile) your code, connect your Arduino to your computer, select the USB/serial connection, select the type of Arduino you're using then upload your code to the Arduino.

Depending your application you will want to choose from one of several Arduino versions; some have more input pins if you need a lot of sensor inputs. Here is a break-out of Arduino-compatible products and their project capacity as follows;

Level 1 - Products that are the easiest to use some are even ready to get you going with pre-loaded code and are the most affordable. These also have least memory and lowest pin count.

Product Description
Arduino Uno R3
Arduino Nano 3.0
Arduino Uno R3, SMD Edition
Arduino Micro
DFRduino Pro Mini V1.3 (16M5V328)
Beetle Microcontroller
Getting Started with Arduino Kit v2.0 (includes Arduino UNO Rev. 3)
Arduino Starter Kit
ATmega328 Uno Development Board
ATmega328 Nano Development Board

Level 2 - These products are a step up in capacity with more memory and usually more I/Os, they are also a bit more expensive and require previous Arduino experience.

ATMega328 Microcontroller Unit
Solarbotics Ardweeny
Arduino Leonardo
RedBear Blend - Arduino with Bluetooth 4.0 LE
ATmega32u4 Leonardo Development Board
Feather HUZZAH with ESP8266 WiFi

Level 3 - The most advanced products provide the most memory and most of them have the highest I/O count for largest project capacity. Advanced programming knowledge is required.

Arduino Due
Arduino Mega 2560 (Revision 3)
DFRduino Pro Mini V1.2(16M5V328)
ATmega2560 MEGA Development Board

Getting Started

There is a great series of Instructables by Honus that give instructions for several Arduino costume animatronics. For a basic get started exercise, Honus starts with simple wiring, as shown below for LEDs. Flashing and fading LEDs instantly set the mood as part of decoration or add life to costume accessories!

LED blinged helmet
LED blinged helmet

1 wiring using Arduino
Wiring the Arduinot

You can find the Arduino code for running LEDs and once you've mastered the Arduino-run blinking LEDs, you can make modifications; add buttons and servo inputs into the circuit for expanded animatronics capabilities. It's really that simple!

Now you're ready to take a big step further. Check out this Predator Cannon! This is a bit more than your typical accessories but it's a DIY costume add-on that is sure to win you the Best in Show prize!! Honus used a modified Wii nunchuck board to make a "head tracking" system to control an animatronics Predator cannon.

The disassembled nunchuck was placed in the top of the helmet. The wires were extended to be used as fingertip buttons to activate the cannon and trigger the firing sequence.

• There is one servo that is geared 4:1 that raises the cannon arm
• The other two servos aim the cannon using the accelerometer inputs
• There are transistors that turn on the aiming servos and laser sight when one button is pressed
• Three red LEDs can be used in place of the laser sight
• The sound effect is handled using an audio playback module like the Rogue AP-MP3 .

Check out these other great costume or decoration add-ons:

Add sound using a bend sensor. In the video below, a bend sensor was used as a trigger
Control multiple servos from multiple inputs - great for using bend sensors attached to a glove, or for controlling an animatronics mask
Use a Wii nunchuck as an input device
Go wireless with XBee radio
• Use a pan/tilt to mount large devices or use for larger cannons

Besides wicked looking costumes additions, household and yard displays can be spiced up with animatronics. Samseide created a really creepy Arduino-powered skull, while mik3 created an animatronics display - all with commonly used electronic components and the easy-to-use smarts of Arduino compatible devices.

Arduino - Power skull
Arduino - Power skull
Animatronics display
Animatronics display

Now get to your workbench and build an animatronic Great White shark AND the moving boat to catch it in! With these Arduino animatronics basics you can experiment, create and scare to your heart's content. Don't forget to tell us about your successes or failures at [email protected]. Maybe we'll share them with the world.