Creating the Animatronic Monarch Butterfly
Creating the Animatronic Monarch Butterfly


Hi my name is John Espey and I built the animatronic monarch butterfly. I partnered with the Kidzeum to build this animatronic monarch butterfly because when I was a kid I loved science museums that had interactive animatronics on display and now I get a chance to actually build them. The process of making this butterfly happens in several steps. First I collected a lot of photo references and then even took high resolutions scans of real monarch butterflies so that I could bring those images into my 3D modeling software and begin designing a to scale proportional structure. I also 3D modeled the servos wiring and other mechanical linkages so that I could place all of these structures together in the model to make sure that they fit and that they still look like a butterfly. I 3D printed these parts and tested them going back and making alterations if I needed. I took those structures, and I covered them and decorated them with different textiles that I felt matched the physical anatomy of monarch butterflies. For instance velvet, fake fur, and even remnant leather to make the abdomen. I did not just 3D print a complete butterfly in one go, I had to assemble that butterfly later so those 3D printed components are actually representative of names regions of insects for instance the head, the abdomen, the wings, the legs, and also the thorax which in itself is broken into several components. Those are the prosternum, metasternum, mesosternum, scutum, and scutellum. Mechatronics is the combination of mechanics and electronics and that was a really big challenge with this monarch butterfly. Five years ago I made my first monarch with that design, the wings were directly connected to the servos which meant that the axis of rotation was inside the thorax of the butterfly. Now if you look at real butterflies and in fact you study how insects with wings flap those wings you realize that axis of rotation is on the very edge of the thorax and that the muscles take up all of the volume and all the space inside. So I needed to figure out how to not only get those servos inside the thorax but then mechanically couple the wings to those servos so that they rotated in a space that matched the real animal. Another challenge was matching the texture and coloration of monarch butterflies. Up close you can see that monarchs are covered in different lengths and different color hair like structures. So I found materials that match those structures, but they also had to match the coloration. To teach myself how to see these colors, I actually used the eye dropper tool in photoshop which displays the hue, the color hue as well as how much white or black is in that color. Then I went through and hand mixed the paints and compared them to real monarch butterflies to try and match that color as closely as possible. It is so much fun to learn the biology and then try to copy or rebuild what you find. We have so much to learn from how nature has solved problems and we can use biology as a reference guide for how we might solve problems. Biomimicry is a really valuable tool but it comes not just from appreciating nature but learning how to co-exist with nature. Pollinators are always working super hard in this mutual beneficial relationship with plants. If we can make their lives easier, they will probably show us ways to make our lives easier too. How many parts of the butterfly can you identify?

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