Animatronic Control Systems

This page last updated October 27, 2021

Once you have the mechanisms, motors, servos and everything else connected you will need some way to control your creation. There are many options and it really depends on the complexity you require and the money you want to spend. Here are a few different methods and types of animatronic controllers.

 

Basic Servo Control

RC Remote Control

One of the classic ways to control your animatronic project is with a remote RC style control system. These range from simple speed and steering car controllers to much more complex multi channel systems. The great things with these is that they are already designed to control servos. You can also get motor speed and light controllers that plug in like a servo. The other advantage is that they are designed for battery power which is great if your prop is mobile or located far away from a power source. However you have to manually control all the movement.

 

USB Servo Controller

Both Pololu and Lynxmotion sell multichannel servo controllers that connect to your PC via a USB connection. Pololu has a free control application that lets create scripts for servo movement and store them on the controller for stand alone operation. Lynxmotion has a similar servo sequencer application. These applications will let you program simple sequences.

 

Microcontroller

Certainly a basic controller you could rig up an Arduino (or any other flavour of microcontroller) and run a few servos, motors and lights with it. The great thing about the Arduino is the huge amount of libraries for various devices (servos, motors, etc) that you want to connect. There are also several cheap MP3 modules available (DF Player, YX5300) which makes adding sound much easier. This will work for fairly simple applications but will soon get difficult if you have many things to control and want to sync the audio to movement. I am not aware of any animatronic specific software frameworks for the Arduino, there are several for robotics that you may be able to make use of, including Artoo and GoBot.

For an example I have used a ESP8266 controller, a servo and some WS2812 pixel LEDs to make this prop gauge: https://vimeo.com/188603358

 

DIY Prop Controllers & Show Control

Octobanger

Octobanger is a DIY Arduino based 8 channel stand alone prop controller project. With it you can synchronize the 8 outputs with an audio track. The outputs are only on/off ( hence the name “banger”) not PWM but still a great controller for the cost. It uses an Arduino variant and a cheap MP3 player to give you a standalone controller. The maker has also written an application that lets you download the sound to an SD card (which goes into the MP3 player) and lets you sync the actions with the sound (this file then gets downloaded to the Arduino). All in all an inexpensive and easy way to get some synchronized movement for your prop. You can get more information on Octobanger (and several other animatronic projects) here: http://buttonbanger.com/?page_id=164

 

Jawduino

Jawduino is a DIY Arduino based talking skull controller (designed by Mike North who also designed the Octobanger). It uses a cheap LED sound meter module to detect the audio volume and then moves a servo to control the jaw. Here the link to the site: http://buttonbanger.com/?page_id=137

Another Halloween enthusiast has updated Jawduino code to also control the 3 axis skull movement. You can find more information here: http://batbuddy.org/resources/Halloweenstuff/TalkingSkull.php

 

Banshee

Banshee is a much more powerful and feature laden standalone prop controller. It is PICAXE based and has Servo, PWM and MOSFET outputs along with protected trigger inputs and a MP3 player. You can find more information and purchase the PCB (which includes some hard to find parts) here: http://www.haunthackers.com/banshee/index.shtml

 

Steve Kochi DIY RC Controller

 Steve Kochi (who sadly passed away in 2021) came up with this great Arduino based multi channel RC servo controller and recorder system that lets you both puppet or record a sequence for remote triggering. This video goes over it’s features:

You can purchase kits for the controller and receiver boards but the the firmware and schematics are published so you can make your own system. You can find them here:

https://www.addicore.com/DIY-RC-Controller-Addikit-with-Receiver-Recorder-p/ad550.htm

https://www.addicore.com/Boffintronics-RC-Receiver-Recorder-p/ad539.htm

And a bit more information  here:

https://www.servomagazine.com/magazine/article/a-diy-rc-controller-and-so-much-more

 

ChatterPi

ChatterPi is software running on various versions of Raspberry Pi`s that lets you drive a servo (based on audio files or live audio) to move an animatronic mouth.  You can get more details on the makers GitHub site or website. He has very comprehensive instructions and some good information on the various other talking skull controller projects :

https://github.com/ViennaMike/ChatterPi

https://www.mcgurrin.info/robots/690/

 

Lightman’s Servo Controller

This an open sourced DIY Propeller based stand alone servo controller designed by Brian Lincoln . It has 8 Servo outputs and a MP3 player. It allows you to record the servo movements synchronized with the sound track. You can find much more information and find examples starting here: https://www.diychristmas.org/vb5/showthread.php?2631-Servo-Recorder-Player-and-Servo-Player

And here:

https://diychristmas.org/vb5/forum/diy-displays/motorized-moving-displays/2823-/page7?2631-Servo-Recorder-Player-and-Servo-Player=&viewfull=1#post62579

There is also a PDF manual that you can find here:

https://www.diychristmas.org/wiki/images/2/23/Servo_Recorder_Player_Guideline-Instructions11.pdf

Note that you need to join as a member of this site (it’s free) in order to download the files. You may also find some of the internal links on the various pages do not work. If you see a vb1 in the URL  (https://diychristmas.org/vb1/…) just change it to a vb5 (https://diychristmas.org/vb5/…) and the link should work….

 

Bechele2 Servo Controller

Bechele2 is an open sourced controller that runs on a RaspberryPi 3 (or OrangePi) and can control up to 16 servos or LEDs using a PCA9685 based module that are synchronized to a sound track. You use a joystick controller to record the servo motion 1 or 2 channels at a time. Then you can play the sequences from the Raspberry Pi using the onboard audio. You can find more information here:

http://bechele.de/pages/english/72-0.html

I am quiet impressed with the Bechele2 software and have started an information page that you can find here:

https://zappedmyself.com/animatronics/bechele2-info/

 

Vixen Lights

There is a freeware Christmas Lighting sequencing application called Vixen. You can find it here: http://www.vixenlights.com/ . It works with DMX and provides similar audio timeline based editing as you get with VSA but is geared to lighting. However you can certainly use it for DMX based servo controllers and someone has made a 3 axis skull add-on for Vixen 2.x. You can find here: http://ctm.maloneylights.com/downloads/.

 

xLights

There is a opensource Christmas lighting sequencer called xLights that you can also use. It supports DMX servos and has a 3 axis skull model.  It also has a feature that lets you import a VSA sequence file. You can find more information about that in this video.

 

Commercial Show Control Software

VSA

Visual Show Automation (VSA) is a commercial windows based application that lets you control a multitude of Servos, Lights, pretty much anything via serial, USB and DMX. It lets you synchronize many channels (128 or 256 depending on version) of pretty much anything with a sound file. You can find more information here: https://www.brookshiresoftware.com/vsa_overview.htm

I have also created a FAQ page on using VSA that you can find here: http://zappedmyself.com/animatronics/vsa-info-faq/

 

DAZL 

This is a new commercial show control application just released by a member of one of the Halloween forum sites. You can find more information at: https://miserybay-software.com/

 

VenueMagic

This is a commercial show control package that looks interesting. It appears to have many features and the Express version seems to be in the affordable range. You can find more information here: https://www.venuemagic.com

Examples

Here are some examples of different types of shows and the various systems used to control them:

A home made Tiki Hut show:

A Halloween ghost train:

Projects

Here are some videos of a few projects I have made over the years. For all of these I have used the BobCat DMX servo controller for the servos & LEDs and used VSA to sequence the motion with the sound tracks: