Animatronics are used in the entertainment industry when there is a need to portray someone (something) that is impossible or difficult to act. Of course, nowadays CGI is used more and more to generate "impossible" things but this method has one major flaw - it cannot create the illusion needed in real life applications.
When I was a kid I watched the King Kong movie with my older sister. I remember asking her is that big monkey real? And if not, how did they make the movie then. My sister replied (she was in her early teens) that the monkey is not real but it is like a machine full with computers. I remember how I imagined the inside of the monkey - stacked full with monitors.
Now it turns out that my sister wasn't far from truth that day. Various machines or mechatronic devices or robots, if you like, are really used in the movie industry to depict characters which would be impossible to depict otherwise. I am talking about the big dinosaurs from Jurassic Park or different aliens in MIB.
Speaking about dinosaurs, one of the most notable uses of robotic devices in the entertainment industry is BBC's Walking with Dinosaurs. It is a six-part documentary TV series which recreate the life in Mesozoic era. To achieve the effect of a documentary, extensive use of animatronics and CGI was applied. It is the most expensive documentary series per minute ever made.
The idea was taken to the next level in 2007 when a live arena spectacular was made based on BBC's Walking with Dinosaurs. It is called - Walking with Dinosaurs - The live experience. This time, real-size robotic dinosaurs were made. You can see the picture of the show below.
by Soon, flickr.com , released under Creative Commons license
Animatronic devices as other robotic devices can be driven by pneumatic, hydraulic, or electric power. So, usually, they are full with hydraulic cylinders, actuators, etc. Earlier, the possibilities were limited because of control. However, with the rise of electronics and computers many obstacles in this field are now removed.
Still, I have to note that these devices are usually preprogrammed or remotely controlled. As far as I am aware they don't have any AI whatsoever. There are robots, though, that resemble humans and have some degree of artificial intelligence. These are called androids. Nevertheless, they are usually separate scientific projects and rarely used for entertainment.
Are you wondering why I didn't mention Disney yet? Because there is much to say about Walt Disney Imagineering and it should be told separately.
Audio animatronics is a trademark registered in 1967 by Walt Disney Imagineering. So, only Disney's entertainment robots can be designated this way. Robots made by other companies are called simply "animatronics".
The Disney Company is a pioneer in this field. They started to use robots in their theme parks already in 60-ties. The most impressive early use of this field was The Enchanted Tiki room. Nowadays, these devices are widely used in Disneylands all over the world.
An important audio animatronics technology is so called compliance. The earlier versions of AA devices could not perform sharp movements as the entire device would shake because of inertia and this would look unnatural. The compliance avoids this by allowing the limbs to move a bit past the programmed stop point and return to the needed position shortly after that.
If you move quickly your arm and then try to suddenly stop it, you'll see the same effect. Your arm will move a bit past the stop point because of inertia and quickly return into the position. It means that by imitating the behavior of biological limbs the compliance technology makes Disney's AA devices even more natural.
Check out Disney's Hall of Presidents video:
Pretty robots, I have to say. Guess which one of them is actually a human? That's right - none.
This field is not different from other robots in terms of application. They are used to do jobs (in this case - roles) that humans are unable to do or that are repetitive and hard.
I hope you now know more about this topic.