In my first year of university, one of my lecturers sent his robot to entertain the crowds at Brighton's Maker Faire and I was one of the people controlling it. Boys came up and put things in its claw hand or got squirted with water from the gun that made up its other arm. Although girls were reluctant to approach, I noticed them watching from a safe distance and they stayed around longer than the boys.
I decided to make a more friendly robot to test my theory that girls are just as interested in robotics as boys, they’re just not being catered for. My mum suggested a life size elephant, which wasn’t practical, but we built a baby one together and have taken it to Glastonbury Festival for the last 4 years. It’s popular with both girls and boys, who kiss and cuddle it as well as ride on it.
We made most of the robot from recycled materials and covered it in Duck Tape to make it waterproof and easy to mend if it gets damaged at the festival. Kids ask us lots of questions because it's obvious that the elephant's homemade and they tell us they're going to make robots themselves.
So this Instructable shows just how easy it is to convert an old electric wheelchair into a ride on elephant. Further Instructables will show how to add robotic functions, such as getting the trunk to move and blow bubbles, and how to insert tubes and a pump for it to drink water and then wee when a button is pressed on a BBC Micro:bit.
We aren't artists, and had no confidence that we could make a realistic looking elephant. Our first head didn’t even have a mouth, but it was surprisingly easy to make something that kids love.
Please take care when building or riding an elephant robot and always use with adult supervision. Many wheelchairs have the option of a second set of controls for a carer. So we bought another joystick and attached it on a lead to take over if a child riding the elephant starts heading towards objects or other people.
- Old Electric Wheelchair (we bought an all-terrain one for £95 on eBay)
- Large strong box to fit the wheelchair (a 64 litre Really Useful Box fitted ours)
- Sheets of foam at least 6mm thick (we cut up an old latex mattress)
- 2 x 20cm Flat Metal Plates with holes
- Table tennis ball painted black
- A roll of Cling film (Saran wrap)
- Masking tape
- 150m Duck Tape (sometimes called Duct Tape)
- 10 rolls of 10cm x 3m Mod Roc Plaster of Paris Bandage
- Approx. 1m x 1m Fabric
- Approx. 0.5m x 1m x 1cm Wadding (or felt packaging material from gourmet food boxes)
- 0.4m x 0.8m Oilcloth (optional) recommended for riders with muddy boots
- Extra fabric and tassel for headdress (optional)
- 3m ribbon (optional)
- Polyester thread
- PVA Glue
- Marker pen
- Sewing machine
- Steam Iron
Step 1: Hacking the Wheelchair
Unscrew the box containing the joystick and remove it from the armrest.
Strip off any unnecessary parts of the frame, leaving structurally important parts, seat belts or harness straps attached. Remove the headrest from the seat back, but keep the seat back and the metal posts that secured the headrest in place.
We found the elephant is more stable and has more natural looking movement with the drive wheels at the front and the caster wheels at the back, so having removed the seat back, fix it on again the other way around. The seat back will hold the weight of the head and keep the box for the body in place.
Find where the leads for the joystick plug into the box with the motor control circuit board, and if possible switch them round to reverse the direction of the wheelchair. If that’s not possible, just turn the joystick control box round when fixing it to the body in the next step.
Step 2: Making the Legs
Lift each caster slightly off the ground and put a large sheet of newspaper underneath each one. Move the casters through 360 degrees to see how much clearance they need and draw a circle on the paper that the caster would turn easily within.
Crumple newspaper and stick it onto the wheels and the frame of the wheelchair to make very fat legs that can accommodate the wheels. Then wrap Cling Film round them and cover with wet Mod Roc leaving a 10cm gap at the bottom (or a bigger gap if the elephant is going to be used on grass. Apply several layers of Mod Roc, leaving to dry between each one. Cover in Duck Tape and secure to the body with even more Duck Tape. Remove the newspaper and Cling Film and wrap strips of Duck Tape over the bottom of the leg and up the inside, to give a neater edge.
You can join the back legs together where they meet the rest of the body, but leave a gap between the front legs to access the batteries underneath.
Step 3: Making the Body
Find a box or boxes to fit securely on the seat to make the basic shape of the body. Firmly attach with rope or reuse the harness straps on the wheelchair. Make the back by covering the box with enough foam to build up the height and create the shape.
With scissors, make a hole through the top where the joystick controls will go and push them into place from underneath. Remember to put them on backwards if it wasn’t possible to reverse the direction of movement in the last step. Secure with Duct Tape.
Attach more foam to the rear end of the elephant with masking tape to create the shape of the elephants bottom.
Wrap the whole body in Cling Film to help hold the shape so you can see if it looks alright.
Cut strips of Duck Tape and stick them to the Cling Film, slightly overlapping each piece, until the whole body is covered. Add crumpled bits of newspaper or foam under strips of Duck Tape to sculpt a more elephant looking shape.
Cover a short piece of rope with duck tape to make a tail and attach it to the rear end with more Duck Tape.
We found out by accident that leaving the elephant out in the sun makes the DuckTape shrivel slightly, giving a more authentic rough skin appearance.
Step 4: Making the Head and Belly
Cover a 9 litre Really Useful Box with crumpled newspaper and papier-mâché until you have a head and trunk. Leave to dry. Dip strips of Mod Roc in water and create a mask over the papier-mâché to make it stronger. When dry, cover with Duct Tape and remove the box and the crumpled newspaper.
Drill holes in the side of the box and attach metal rods to them with nuts and bolts as seen in the video.
Cut a table tennis ball in half and paint both parts black. Position them where you want the eyes and secure in place with short strips of Duck Tape, to look like eyelids. Add more Duck Tape with thin strips of twisted newspaper underneath, to look like wrinkles around the eyes.
Cut ears out of felt and cover and attach to the head with more Duck Tape.
We chose not to have tusks because they could poke children and because ivory poaching has led to more tusk-less elephants being born.
Attach the rods of the head box to the seat back using the long bolts that came slotted into the
holes for the wheelchair's headrest and a nut and bolt on each side. Then slide the head mask over it and attach to the body with more Duck Tape.
The belly is made from a roughly semicircular piece of cardboard, padded with wadding and covered in Duck Tape. It's purpose is simply to hide the seat back of the wheelchair.
Step 5: Making a Blanket
Fold the 1m square piece of fabric in half, with the right side, and any pattern, facing inwards. Check to see if it fits on the back of the elephant. And cut to size if necessary. Place felt or wadding on top of the fabric and cut to the same size.
Sew a seam 1cm in from the edge along 3 sides, except the folded one, leaving a gap of at least 20cm along one of the seams. Trim the edge of the wadding close to the line of stitching, and turn the fabric the right side out, with the wadding inside. Turn the 1cm seam allowance of the remaining 20cm inwards on both edges and stitch together by hand. Press well.
Sew on oilcloth and ribbon (optional).
Step 6: Riding the Elephant
Some wheelchairs have settings to limit the speed of the wheelchair. We usually limit it to 3 miles an hour, or even slower for small children.
The softness of the foam encourages children to grip with their knees and parents hold toddlers on or ride with them. No one has fallen off so far, but please be aware that there is a risk of accidents and take extra care when using on hard surfaces. We mainly use our elephant on grass because it is built around an all terrain wheelchair, but it is not suitable for steep slopes or rough terrain.
We have a stool from Ikea for children to get on and off of the elephant, which is also useful to show where they can line up for rides.