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How to build your dragon
Georgia Southern engineering graduate pushes program's boundaries in animatronics
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Georgia Southern University engineering graduate student Brian Burns and his cyber dragon, Kronos, pose for a picture in Burns' lab. Kronos was the subject of Burns' master's thesis about viewer satisfaction when encountering an interactive versus a passive animatronic device. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/staff

Brian Burns walks into his lab — room 2113 in the engineering building on Georgia Southern University’s campus — and comes face to face with a dragon.
    The black reptile, roughly the size of a large dog, sits curled on a table in the middle of the room. When Burns walks in, it raises its head and flares its wings. Fixing Burns in its catlike stare, the dragon watches as Burns moves cautiously around the room. It turns its head to follow his progress. Occasionally, it growls or beats its tail against the table. When Burns leaves the room, it folds its wings and lays its head down, closing its bright green eyes to return to its nap until the next person comes in.
    His name is Kronos, and he is Burns’ master’s thesis project: an animatronic dragon equipped with person-tracking technology. Without a puppeteer or a control of any kind, dictated by an infrared camera and a computer program Burns wrote mostly from scratch, Kronos can turn his head to face people in the room and follow them with his gaze.
    He is the end result of several years of research and development, and he just landed Burns his dream job with the Disney Imagineers.

How to build a dragon
    Burns — a fitting name for a builder of dragons — began his project as an undergrad after returning from a term with the Disney College Program his sophomore year. He comes from a family of Disney enthusiasts; in fact, his younger brother Eric currently is enrolled in the same college program at the park working in Animal Kingdom. Burns already had wanted to work for Disney, but the college program inspired him to go after a job in the animatronics and show effects division.
    But to get in, he needed a flashy project to showcase his animatronics skills and catch Disney’s attention. To up the ante and fit the project for a research-based master’s thesis, Burns added the person-tracking component.
    “The purpose of the project was to have an animatronic platform where we could test passive and interactive behaviors and get responses from guests, and see, based on their ratings, if they think it’s more entertaining in an interactive mode or a passive mode,” Burns said.
    His findings, based on many surveys conducted with people encountering Kronos in both modes, indicated that guests were most engaged when it seemed like Kronos was actively responding to them.
    Burns also designed many of Kronos’ interior components, 3D-printing the vertebrae for Kronos’ neck and the smaller mechanisms that allow the dragon to blink. Kronos’ skull is made of laser-cut acrylic, and the components for his wings are laser-cut plywood.
    “It’s a larger project than most students intend to take on, but it’s something I was very excited and passionate about, so it wasn’t as difficult for me to spend late nights working on it or most of my free time,” said Burns, who spent many 12-hour days holed up in his lab with only the dragon for company.
    As for Kronos’ exterior appearance, Burns enlisted the help of junior 3D arts student Justin Hinckley to help with the design. Between the two of them, they created a look initially modeled on the dinosaurs of "Jurassic Park," with textured scales based on an armored Asian mammal called a pangolin. They created oil-based clay models to press the scales and other features into a mold made of silicon. They then filled the mold with polyurethane foam, which expanded and hardened into Kronos’ body. The completed cast was fitted over Kronos’ interior mechanisms.
    “(Brian) wanted it to be gentle-looking enough to interact with children, but also wanted it to have the realistic appearance of a carnivorous reptile to appeal to adults,” Hinckley said. In his final form, Kronos resembles a mix between Smaug from "The Hobbit" movies and Toothless from "How to Train Your Dragon" — reptilian enough to be thrilling, but also somehow cute and approachable.

Disney bound
    Kronos started in Burns’ junior undergraduate year as a grant-funded research project. Burns completed the prototype (later named “Hyperion”) by the time he graduated from GSU’s new mechanical engineering program in 2013. He carried the project into his master’s program in mechatronics, a hybrid of the mechanical and electrical engineering fields. Burns is the first GSU student to pursue a mechatronics master’s degree in the program’s short history.
    Pioneering a subfield for GSU’s engineering school is not Burns’ only claim to fame. Last summer, Burns took an internship with Universal Studios' effects team in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter park, where he worked on the flame system for the giant, fire-breathing dragon perched atop Gringotts Bank.
    “That’s impressive to see, whenever it’s in the commercial, knowing that one of our students worked on that project,” said Dr. Brian Vlcek (pronounced “VAL-check”), the department chair of the mechanical engineering program, who sat on Burns’ thesis committee and who has taught Burns since his undergraduate classes.
    As the end of his master’s program approached, Burns reached out to a contact he’d made in the Disney Imagineers. He sent along a link to his online portfolio, which features several videos tracking the progress of his dragon project. Soon after, he received a call from the Imagineering show and animation team. Two days after his interview, he received a job offer.
    “I accepted that pretty quick,” Burns said. “It’s exactly what I wanted as a job, and I’m very excited to be starting there.”

The fun side of the engineering field
    Many other engineering students work in bio-inspired robotics for the ever-evolving prosthetics field, or in the field of computational processing, Vlcek said. While those fields may seem more practical than designing attractions for theme parks, he argues that Burns’ work — in addition to being, and providing, fun — helps advance the study of robotics.
    “Part of the underlying premise of what Brian was doing was not just to create an animatronic device or robot,” Vlcek said. “He was also looking at the interfacing of the animatronic device with humans ... to make future generations of robots more accepted by society — more user-friendly, shall we say, in the way that word is usually used. That’s a big element of his project not to be downplayed.”
    “When I came to work in this department, I never would have connected Disney with mechanical engineering,” said Brenda Albanese, secretary to the department chair, whose office has become Kronos’ home where Albanese shows him off to prospective students. “A lot of (students), when they come in as freshmen, don’t know where they’re going in the engineering field. This was a method of letting the kids see, as a student, what a 22-year-old student was capable of.”
    Burns thinks the project’s unique angle is part of its draw for the department and why the faculty members have been so supportive through the process.
    “It is a good example of what you can do here and what you can do after,” he said. “If you have an idea or an inspiration and you want to go after it, follow your dream there.”
    At the very least, Kronos has inspired a budding departmental interest in animatronics. Burns’ younger brother, Eric, will be working on an animatronic bald eagle after he returns from the Disney program in the fall. The eagle, which will be something like the animatronic sibling of GSU mascot Freedom, will be an actor-controlled robot responding to commands sent through a falconry glove.

The dragon at rest

    For now, Kronos spends most of his days “sleeping” in Albanese’s office in the mechanical engineering department, enjoying his status as “pet” and ambassador as his creator goes on to his post-graduate career. He gets wheeled out for open house days and elementary school visits as an example of what an engineering student can accomplish. At technology fairs and field trips, he is a big hit with the kids.
    Vlcek says that future students will likely want to pursue their own projects and allow Kronos to enjoy retirement, but Albanese said it is possible future students may want to add their own upgrades. She said, jokingly, that one day Kronos might be able to run down the hall and bite people’s ankles.
    When Brian heard this, he laughed.
    “It’s possible. That could happen eventually,” he said — adding, with a creator’s glint in his eye, “I would be down for working on something like that.”

    Brittani Howell can be reached at (912) 489-9405.