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Intellect

BYU engineering, theatre arts students team up to create animatronic cougar

Cosmo's got a new fellow cougar friend: Cosmotron

Cosmotron animatronic cougar designed by engineering and TMA students. Video produced by Julie Walker.

Rise and shout! BYU fans will soon have a new cougar to cheer for. Thanks to the combined efforts of two BYU engineering capstone teams and a group of theatre and media arts (TMA) students, Cosmo is getting an animatronic counterpart in the theatre department. Designed to introduce plays and similar events, “Cosmotron,” as he is fondly known, will bring added school spirit to BYU performances.

While engineering capstone projects typically develop products for clients outside the university, the theatre department’s desire to have an animatronic cougar provided an excellent learning opportunity for students from both ends of campus during the 2020–21 academic year. Animatronics are commonly built for amusement parks and films (think Disneyland and Jurassic Park), and their creation requires a wide range of engineering and artistic skills.

“We will fight, day or night, rain or snow”: Creating Cosmotron

When they first brainstormed Cosmotron’s design, the students were unsure they’d be able to pull off the complex task. Somehow, they needed to fit all of the necessary parts inside the cougar’s small head and make sure that each team’s work — mechanical engineering components, electrical and computer engineering components, and software controls — could come together to make a working puppet.

But so far, the results are impressive. Operated by two PlayStation 4 controllers, the cougar can express personality by tilting and turning its head, opening its jaw at different speeds for speech, smiling and frowning, opening and closing it eyes, raising its eyebrows and flapping its ears. “We wanted to give him as much expression as we could,” said Claire Lore, a member of the mechanical engineering team.

Giving the animatronic this range of expressions has required extensive research, good communication and much trial and error, with each group playing a specialized role. The mechanical team developed the cougar’s skeleton by fitting various motors together, and the software controls team figured out how to power and direct the motors. The TMA students, who are studying costume and makeup design, created the outer shell of the cougar and added eyes, teeth, claws and fur for a realistic effect.

To choose the hardware, the mechanical team built on others’ work. “Animatronics have been around for a while,” said Lore, “so a lot of the mechanical components are things that already existed. We took things from commercial or remote-control airplanes and suggestions from other people on how to route wires to save space inside the cougar.”

Both the mechanical engineering and TMA teams studied cougar taxidermies from BYU’s Monte L. Bean Life Science Museum to make Cosmotron look like an actual cougar.

“We spent hours looking at pictures, reading about cougar anatomy,” said Jenna Monson, part of the TMA group. “Then we asked the Bean Museum if we could look at one of their cougars, and they said, ‘Oh, just borrow it.’ So we had this cougar in the HFAC for a good three weeks and got to see in closer detail how the eyes looked, the texture on the nose, how the fur moved along the body.”

It took several attempts for Monson and her team to set the eyes and eyebrows just right to give the cougar a neutral or happy expression rather than an angry one. Adding fur was particularly laborious, requiring a flocking technique with static electricity for a 3D effect and airbrushing for color detail.

And bringing life to those features — powering the cougar — was a delicate task for the software team. “We had to design a system that could deliver enough power to the motors and could sequentially control when things were turned on instead of all at once, without melting the wires or shutting everything down,” said student Parker King.

“We’ll raise our colors high in the blue and cheer our cougars of BYU”

As Cosmotron comes together at last, the students are excited to see the knowledge from their coursework materialize into something useful. “I have spent the last five years learning equations, but applying them like this is really amazing because you can really understand how all those puzzle pieces fit together,” said Lore.

“It was so rewarding to see something go from the team’s imagination at the beginning of the fall semester to now being a reality,” Monson added.

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