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"The droid you're looking for" -- Hampstead man builds own R2-D2

Jason Pangborn, of Hampstead, has built his own screen-accurate R2-D2, inspired by his family's love of the "Star Wars" franchise. Pangborn and the droid travel throughout the country, making appearances and delighting fans of all ages.

Of the many origins in "Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace," one of the most controversial additions was the reveal that Darth Vader built C-3PO when Vader was a child. Despite three entire films of back story and a veritable mountain of expanded universe material, the creation of Threepio's counterpart R2-D2 remains a mystery.

In Hampstead, light years away from galactic rebellion and the stranglehold of the Imperial Empire, is another R2-D2, nearly identical to the first, with a much less mysterious background — created simply to bring joy to a father and child.

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Jason Pangborn, of Hampstead, has built his own screen-accurate R2-D2, inspired by his family's love of the "Star Wars" franchise. Pangborn and the droid travel throughout the country, making appearances and delighting fans of all ages. With the release of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" Thursday, Dec. 17, Pangborn said the rapidity of his appearance schedule has increased nearly to light speed.

Pangborn said the path to bringing the Astromech droid to life began October 2011, when his son told him he wanted to be R2-D2 for Halloween. Pangborn began researching costume ideas, and while in the process, discovered the R2 builder's club, a group that doesn't build costumes, but rather full-size, fully functional replicas of the famous droid.

It was a little too overwhelming at first, but the group planted the seed which would soon blossom into an R2-unit of his own.

"One night, I was on Facebook, when one of my friends posted a picture of an R2-D2 his brother had built. I started talking to him, and it became a little more achievable than it seemed at first," Pangborn said. "I started reading as much as possible on the club website. There was a lot of information, and I soon learned that there was really no right or wrong way to build one."

When not assembling droids, Pangborn assembles houses as a carpenter. He said very few of his skills from carpentry translated over to the robotic and electronic work of building an R2-D2. Pangborn's "Artoo" is build out of aluminum pieces that have been machined for members of the builders club to resemble the filmed version. Once the pieces arrived, he began to assemble them together into the trash can shape of the final droid. The project took about 17 months to complete, with Pangborn finishing his in April 2013.

Each builder puts together their R2-unit together in their own way, using their own materials. Pangborn said he chose aluminum because it's so rugged and can withstand a lot of wear and tear; though this means his Artoo is also much heavier than some other builders, coming in at around 350 pounds. The completed R2-D2 is remote-controlled, can drive in any direction, swivel its head, light up and play various excerpts from the "Star Wars" scores.

In fact, the droid is actually more advanced than the ones used in the original film. For scenes where R2-D2 swiveled its head or moved side-to-side, actor Kenny Baker was placed inside a non-functioning R2-D2 suit and moved these controls manually, as opposed to the completely robotic Pangborn-built creation.

An active participant with Star Wars costuming groups like the 501st Legion, a volunteer group which appears in screen accurate costumes at Star Wars events, Pangborn travels with Artoo — not in an X-Wing, but in a trailer — to "Star Wars" and robotics events and fundraisers throughout the country, with Artoo visiting fans from Maryland to California, including appearances at Washington Nationals games, parades and charities.

Pangborn and R2-D2 will appear at six events in four days during "The Force Awakens'" opening weekend, appearing at the Senator Theater Thursday night, where Pangborn will first see the film, and Friday morning, another appearance at the Muvico Theater in the Arundel Mills Mall to watch with his family Friday afternoon, a showing in the Frederick Regal Cinemas Saturday morning and an appearance at the Air and Space Museum for their IMAX showing Saturday evening. Each year, Pagnborn's appearance schedule has practically doubled, with Artoo showing up at 13 events in 2013, 26 events in 2014 and 49 by the end of the year in 2015.

Pangborn said his own children have become desensitized to Artoo, with his daughter unable to remember a time without the droid.

"They don't get as excited. It seems like a normal thing," Pangborn said. "Occasionally they'll go to events and have fun with it for a little while, but it's more the adventure of being out in the public that's exciting for them, then."

Pangborn was 2 years old when the original "Star Wars" debuted, but he said he has vivid memories of seeing "The Empire Strikes Back" at a drive-in theater when he was five.

"I was obviously hooked on it immediately," Pangborn said. "I played with all the toys and got into everything about it."

As he got into his teens, Pangborn said he fell out of heavy Star Wars fandom, but began collecting toys in his mid-20's. Ever since, he's been heavily involved in the Star Wars scene. He said he's anticipating the release of the new film, but is cautiously excited about it.

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"I want it to be good," Pangborn said. "I think it will be better than the prequels; I'm not a fan at all of them. No matter how good it is, though, it can't be the same as the original movies. They were just magic at the time."

Pangborn said he hopes his R2-D2 recaptures that magic for fans, young and old, who a glimpse of a galaxy far, far away come to life, when he and the 501st Legion come around.

"I wouldn't be doing it if people didn't get excited when they say it," Pangborn said. "Everybody loves R2-D2, especially the kids. It's just a lovable character to get attached to. It affects almost everyone the same way"

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Twitter.com/Jacob_deNobel

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