Have you ever seen a two-tonne hexapod turbo walker in action? It’s not an everyday occurrence. Meet the ‘Mantis’ walker’s inventor, Matt Denton, who told WeLove Digital about building hydraulic robots for Jim Henson, designing monsters for Harry Potter and how the Mantis could have been a 300 tonne leviathan.
Building a two-tonne hexapod is a major undertaking – they are normally around eight to twelve inches across and can dance on a tabletop with ease. Even to an experienced animatronics engineer and builder like Matt Denton the Mantis Robot was an unknown quantity. Making your name in bringing fantastic puppets to life or giving them realistic emotions is slightly different to creating a turbo-powered hydraulic monster machine.
Micromagic Systems was set up in the summer of 1998 to provide robotic, puppet and animatronic control systems to the TV and film industry. Matt had built up expertise in remote control servo devices for complex animatronic models over five years and saw demand for his control systems growing rapidly. While working on a television advert for a drinks company (involving Johnny Vaughan and several gorillas), he used his down time between set ups to brainstorm robotics ideas. “I had always been interested in walking machines, in particular six-legged hexapods,” said Matt.
Having looked at a few on the internet and not been particularly impressed, he decided to have a go himself. “I remember trying to figure out the inverse kinematic maths for the leg while I was on set, but couldn’t get my head around it,” he said. “So I started to do a bit of research, found an in depth book on the subject and dived in.”
Just build it
Four months later the first prototype was built and named (“called Pye after my late grandfather – his nickname”), but this was only the beginning of a decade of experimentation. “I built various versions over the next 10 years, all no larger than 50cm long, but in the back of my mind I was starting to think big,” said Matt. “I had a little experience with hydraulics and thought it would be amazing to make a hexapod large enough to pilot.”
In 2008 he took a call from a company interested in his hexapod software. They were looking to guild a large scale hydraulic version and wondered if his program could be adapted to control the machine. “I asked what size they were thinking and the reply was ‘300 tonnes’,” said Matt. “I was somewhat lost for words. I had a few meetings and although they seemed keen to pursue building a large scale hexapod, I decided it would be better to raise funding to build a test platform of two tonnes, which could also cross the boundaries of creative engineering.”
Looking back, Matt admitted, this probably was a bit short sighted. He should have gone with the extreme challenge of building a mega walker. Still the end result is the Mantis and that has taught him valuable lessons in large scale builds. “Software that controls a hexapod 50cm long is very different to the kind of algorithms I ended up with on the Mantis,” he admitted.
A Little Magic
Matt contracts out his services through Micromagic Systems and got his first big film contract working for Jim Henson’s Creature Shop on Lost In Space. “I had no idea what I was getting into when that job came along but I had the ignorance of youth on my side,” he said. “Pretty awful film but we got to build some cool giant hydraulic robots.”
Following that initiation he worked on Harry Potter films The Prisoner of Azkaban and The Goblet of Fire, providing controls for Buck Beak the Hippogriff and Fawkes the Phoenix, plus films Prometheus, The World’s End and the new Star Wars Episode VII movie due for release in December. “Going back to 1998 my control system brought the singing baby to life in the Massive Attack video for ‘Teardrop’,” added Matt. “I also did quite a long stint working on various game shows such as Who Wants to be a Millionaire for a company called G-Graphics, looking after electronics design such as audience voting systems and show control interfaces.”
Mantis may not be the mega robot that changed the world, but it has certainly opened doors for Matt. He has taken it on road trips through Europe, including one memorable drive through Sweden to a forestry event in Jonkoping. Appearances on TV have followed and include The Gadget Show, Gadget Man, the Canadian Discovery channel and Blue Peter.
Mantis’ charms may yet make Matt’s fortune. “I think it is a slow burner,” he said. “I was recently contacted by a US team who wanted me to join them on a project to build giant bipedal fighting robots.”
Besides bringing his creature to Maker Faire UK 2015 and working on a feature film in the UK, if he wasn’t so busy he’d gladly do it. Ah, it certainly is a hard knock life.