After building static props for years I wanted to make the leap into animatronics – characters that talked, zombies that crawled out of graves and monsters that jumped out at you. I admit that I was intimidated at first because I didn’t know where to start. Aside from the artistic aspects, making animatronics and motorized props requires a variety of disciplines like robotics, mechanical engineering, electrical and computer science. How was I going to learn all this stuff?
Like most DIY prop makers, I learned by doing, failing, and then doing again. Starting with simple mechanisms that were only capable of one movement, I failed my way to success building more articulations and incorporating microcontrollers, lights and sounds. The exciting thing about animatronics is that you don’t have to be an expert to build cool creatures and robots. You already have the most important tools – your imagination and persistence.
If you’re ready to create motorized props, robot or animatronics but don’t know how to choose the right motor, I’ve put together this comprehensive guide to the most popular and affordable options to bring life-like professional movement to your homemade creations!
Types of Motors
Animatronic prop motors fall into three main categories – electric, pneumatic (air pressure), and hydraulic (fluid pressure). Some are easier to get started with than others but I’ll take you through the most popular motor options geared towards animatronics and motorized prop projects along with the advantages and drawbacks of each one so you can decide what’s best for your next creation.
Electric motors are the easiest to start with and integrate into your prop. They’re commonly available as fixed speed, variable speed and vibrating.
The deer motor is a fixed speed motor and gets its name from the outdoor motorized holiday deer decor where the deer’s head moves slowly up and down. This is perhaps one of the most popular motors you’ll find in store-bought outdoor props and the easiest motor to begin with because it plugs right into a regular wall outlet. It starts moving the moment you plug it in! Deer motors are among the least expensive options and great for projects that need a slow repetitive movement. It has an arm (called a horn) where you can attach string, a rod, bracket, or even a pulley to create motion like lifting, turning, and up & down. Since deer motors don’t have much torque they’re best suited for lightweight props.
You will also see them called synchronous motors because the rotation of the shaft is synchronized with the frequency of the supply current. Unlike the dedicated deer motors, these will usually come without the plastic housing and horn so you can make attachments directly to the shaft. They’re available at different fixed speeds and frequencies. These don’t come with a power cord pre-attached so you’ll have to wire one yourself to the motor’s leads. You can use wire nuts or quick connectors for a more temporary connection or solder the wires together for something more permanent.
If you only need basic movement for a lightweight prop, check out deer motors or other synchronous motors.
Variable Speed Motors
These motors can operate in a range of speeds giving you more control of your prop’s motions. Variable speed motors are an excellent choice for producing more realistic movements that aren’t as predictable as fixed speed motors. The speed of the motor is determined by how much voltage is supplied to it so to set a speed or change the speed at specific intervals you’ll need a motor controller. In addition to a controller, you’ll also have to connect the motor to a power supply. This can either be a battery or power adapter that plugs into the wall.
Variable speed motors are available in different sizes, voltages and torque abilities so if you’re just starting out with animatronics it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Of course the more torque you need to move heavier parts of your prop the more expensive the motor. There are also a variety of motor controllers on the market to fit your skill level from coding and uploading complex programs to “plug-and-play” options that allow you to control your motor with a push of a button along with speed adjustment knobs. The last piece of the puzzle is a power supply that matches the voltage of your motor and provides enough current (amps) to run it.
You can pick out each of the three components separately or opt for a kit that includes everything you need – a motor, matching power supply and controller. The most popular of these kits are for 2-speed windshield wiper motors – the same ones used in cars. These prop kits come with the wiper motor, matching power supply and a controller, eliminating a lot of the research and guesswork that comes with picking motorized components and accessories individually.
If you need more torque than a deer or fixed motor can provide, I highly recommend you try a wiper motor first. They’re less expensive than many other motor options and widely available online new or used but you can frequently get an even better deal by visiting your local scrap yard.
As the name implies, vibration motors are great for making props shake, writhe, and wiggle in unpredictable ways to level up the scare factor. They’re commonly used in static props for haunted or horror attractions to complement the more elaborately motorized animatronics. They work best in flexible props that have latex or silicon elements that can move freely for a more realistic shudder-inducing effect. It’s easy to install – just strap or bolt it to any static prop and watch it shake! Most have a power cord already attached so you can plug it into the wall.
If you want to add a shivering or shaking effect to a static prop, try using a vibration motor.
As your motorized props and animatronics projects become more complex, servo motors become an essential component of your design. They’re widely used for eye mechanisms, operating jaws, controlling arms, heads and any movement that requires more precise control, positioning and complex programmable articulations. In order for servos to move from one point to another within that range of motion, the servo controller must send out a precisely calculated signal known as Pulse Width Modulation (PWM). The width of this signal will determine the exact positioning of the servo within its arc. Generally servo controllers are dedicated pieces of hardware that input signals from components such as a joystick, potentiometer or even sensors and based on those calculations output their own PWM signal; alternatively servo controllers can by bypassed with a microcontroller like Arduino which can directly feed commands to the servo.
Servos usually operate off a DC voltage which can be provided by either a battery or an AC adapter depending on whether your project is stationary or mobile. When selecting a servo, it’s important to consider the servo’s current draw. A common hobby servo can pull as little as 10mA when unloaded, but servos under load can experience higher current draw – potentially in excess of one Ampere or more. It is essential to check the servo you intend to use and determine whether your power supply can handle this current and will provide the necessary voltage – most servos work with 5V from a microcontroller or battery circuit.
If you need to precisely control the movement of certain aspects of your motorized prop, robot or animatronics project, consider using servos. You’ll also need to power them with batteries or wall adapter as well as control them with an Arduino microcontroller or other servo controller.
Linear actuators are a great solution for applications that require linear motion in a forward and reverse direction. They have an internal motor and worm gear, which converts the motor’s rotational motion into linear motion. This is far more efficient than the circular motion provided by a servo or motor, because it eliminates the need to add any extra linkages. Plus, linear actuators are quieter compared to pneumatics and don’t require the use of other equipment such as valves or compressors.
The most effortless way to get your linear actuator up and running is to simply connect it to power. The shaft will extend until it reaches its limit switch. To retract, you simply need to reverse the polarity – an extra step which can become much simpler by adding a double pole, double throw (DPDT) switch inline which with a flick of a switch changes the direction of travel. Taking control further, an external motor controller may be used to manage the linear actuator’s position.
Unlike the other electric motors we’ve covered so far, these are not made for continuous use so be sure you don’t exceed the duty cycle.
Power door lock actuators are a great linear actuator project to get started with, as they offer a very inexpensive way to experiment. Plus, they allow you to visualize how linear actuators can be used in larger and more complex designs. To make operation easy, buying a wireless push button controller is recommended – there are loads of options available online, so pick one that is best for your needs. Generally speaking you can get set up for less than $20 and even though power door locks have minimal torque, they’re great for many lightweight applications.
If you need linear motion and the movements don’t have to operate continuously, then there are a variety of linear actuators to fit your needs. Standard linear actuators can lift heavier loads but operate more slowly. They’ll also need a controller if you want to program positions. Linear servos have a control board built in so you don’t need an external motor controller. High speed linear actuators can provide similar results to pneumatic systems without all the extra equipment like air hoses or loud compressors and can move heavier loads faster. But you’ll need an external controller if you want to program specific positions and frequency of movements. Don’t forget to try power door locks if you’re just starting out with a lightweight prop and need an inexpensive solution!
Pneumatic systems are synonymous with jump scare props – a surefire way to startle anyone visiting a haunted house attraction. They run on simple compressed air that when delivered at the right pressure can move entire static props or portions of your animatronics very quickly. That’s why you typically here a hissing sound and a pop when the air cylinder goes off. But they aren’t just for haunted houses. Pneumatic systems are a great choice when you need your motorized prop, robot or animatronics character to make quick movements. For instance, a lot of the movements of the Chuck-E-Cheese and theme park animatronic characters are pneumatic. Linear actuators cannot apply as much force, operate as quickly, or run continuously. If you have the need for a large number of fast moving mechanisms, then a pneumatic system would be a better choice.
Pneumeatic systems consists of an air compressor, air cylinders, fittings and solenoid valves. Air cylinders work a lot like linear actuators but instead of using a motor to extend a shaft, they rely on air pressure that pushes up against the shaft to move it out quickly. Air cylinders can be single, double and reverse action. Single action cylinders provide power only on the extension stroke. Then an internal spring returns the spring to its original position. Double action cylinders have dual pressure chambers and can provide pneumatic power on both extension and retraction, eliminating the need for a spring. Double action cylinders are the most popular for motorized props and animatronics. Finally, reverse action cylinders only provide power on the retraction stroke. These are not at popular as the other two cylinder types.
Pneumatic fittings allow you to connect air hoses to the compressor and air cylinder and even split the air source into more than one cylinder. Solenoids work like valves that allow you to control the airflow going into an air cylinder. When paired with a controller you can program the bursts of air to create custom timed movements.
If you need more continuous, quick, and responsive movements, then try a pneumatic system with an air compressor, air cylinder and controller to bring static props to life!
Hydraulic systems are similar to pneumatic ones but instead of air, they operate on fluid – either water or oil. These systems are more expensive than the other options we’ve discussed so far and therefore are usually reserved for professional large-scale animated projects. They can produce far more force for lifting heavy loads than their pneumatic counterparts so they’re usually overkill for DIY and homemade animatronics projects. I’ll cover hydraulic systems as they pertain to prop making and creature design in more detail in a future post.
Get Started with a Single Motion Animatronic
Making your own animated props and characters is a fun and rewarding experience. Start by mastering a single motion and then build on it. Whether you try out some of the motor options I’ve covered here or experiment with your own design ideas, the best way to learn is to get building! Motors are the beating heart of animatronics, robots, and other motorized props, enabling them to move with life-like realism. With deer motors, wiper motors, fixed speed motors, variable speed motors, servos, linear actuators, or pneumatic systems now in your wheelhouse, you’ll be able to pick the best option to bring your ideas to life with professional results!
If you get stuck or need more direction, I invite you to join our Engineering Artists community where you can master vital animatronics and robotics skills to accelerate your growth in less time with real-time interactive courses focused on doing along with a motivating community to keep you on track.
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