Most people just have cars, bikes and lawn mowers in their garage. George Westwater has a droid.

As in R2-D2. As in "Star Wars." As in ... "Whoa! Where'd you get that thing?"

With "Star Wars: Episode VII" now shooting, every tidbit of news about the iconic franchise flies across social media and the Internet at light speed.

Fan-built droids are part of the frenzy. Costing more than $16,000, the Lenexa, Kansas, man's R2 is no dime-store copy. Though you could believe he got it at a George Lucas estate sale, actually he built it by hand with his sons, 7-year-old Alex and 5-year-old Zach.

Turns out that "Star Wars" fans around the globe are doing the same thing. Westwater belongs to Astromech.net, an international droid builders club with 14,000 members.

"I have personally talked to people in Argentina, Brazil, New Zealand, Australia, France, England and Italy," Westwater says.

The fans' droids are so good that "Star Wars" producer Kathleen Kennedy hired a couple of British club members to make the R2-D2 and other "astromech" droids for the new movie.

"It's a dream come true," one of the club members now working on the movie -- Oliver Steeples of Berkshire, England -- told Lucasfilm.com.

Lucas on board

To make the plans for building "screen-accurate" droids, club members got measurements from the movies, then got help from "Star Wars" creator Lucas, who made parts from the films' 3-D archives available.


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The resulting droids are more than just nerd nirvana. They're little robotic ambassadors doing good in the world. Their owners take them to charitable events and children's hospitals, where they bring smiles from kids of all ages and forge special bonds with special-needs children.

Technically, Westwater's droid is an R2-A7, sporting slightly different colors (green, silver and white) from the original R2-D2 (blue, silver and white). But in virtually every other way it is so accurate you'd almost expect Luke Skywalker and C-3PO to come strolling through the room.

Westwater's droid beeps and boops. Its brushed metal dome spins, and its multicolored LED lights flash with computerized precision. Complete with a motor and a remote, it can move around a room and play sound clips from the movie, including the theme song.

It is made from aluminum, which increases the cost. But other droids can be made (mostly of wood) for as little as $1,500, he says.

Family project

For Westwater, a 36-year-old software engineer who started his local chapter of Astromech two years ago, making droids and other robots with his boys is a labor of love.

The most fun part? "Spraying the paint on it!" says Zach. "Driving it!" says Alex.

"We decided the kids were just about old enough to be able to watch the 'Star Wars' movies," Westwater says, "and they were getting to the age where I was looking for a project to do with them -- hopefully around electronics or software. So we decided to build an R2. I started looking for some reference photos, then stumbled across the group."

After obtaining plans from Astromech, he joined with other droid builders worldwide to get laser-cut parts made at a bulk discount. Then he started building.

"It may seem daunting, but we have builders as young as 10 building on their own," he says. "Everything can be done by anybody of any skill level. Quite literally, the laser-cut parts are like a 3-D puzzle. You just glue and screw."

But what about the circuit boards and software? Not just anybody can do that.

"For a lot of the parts inside, we try to stick to as many off-the-shelf parts as possible," he says. "And there are walk-throughs on how to make them work. And just about anywhere anybody is living, there's somebody nearby who is probably building a droid (and) who can help."

Westwater has taken his droid to "Star Wars" events, Comic-Cons and his boys' schools. He likes his aluminum R2 so much that he's building another from plastic and fiberglass.

A home office in his basement serves as robot central. The room is chock-full of electronics and components, and decorated with countless photos and various-size action figures. There's C-3PO, Darth Vader and Darth Maul. "And this is a Dalek," he says, pointing to a chunky figure of the robotic nemesis of Dr. Who, from the British show of the same name.

The droids give Westwater a certain cachet. "I grew up being the geeky kid," he says. But now everything has flipped. Just ask his kids or any of their friends. Now he's the cool dad.

His next larger project is making a Dalek from "Dr. Who" big enough to ride in.