Archangel Wings

"You made what?!"
This is without a doubt the biggest project I have ever undertaken in my, albeit short making career. It all began with a conversation I had with my brother after the New York Comic Convention in 2010. A comic book artist himself, and naturally a super-fan of the genre, he was really excited to show me some of the amazing costumes that people put together to bring to the convention. (Click here to see photos from a large convention in San Diego)

After talking for a bit on what costumes would be really fun to see (or have for ourselves), I wondered aloud if anyone had ever attempted a decent Archangel costume (see photo on right). One of my favorite characters, I have always been a fan of his metal wings. After a bit of google searching, the best I found was a few people that attempted the costume and made their wings out of cardboard. I say "attempted" because the only way to really do the character justice, in my humble opinion, the wings just had to be metal. So I thought "challenge accepted!" and started the long road that culminated at NY comic con 2011. These are some of the reactions I received.

"Wow, those are totally Archangel!"
Although Archangel's metal wings have been drawn slightly differently by different artists throughout the years, there is one shape that most people will recognize as characteristically Archangel. This shape can be seen beautifully done below in a statue made by Mark Newman of Bowen Designs.

Archangel by Mark Newman, Bowen Designs
The two outer wings are somewhat bat-like with his second pair of wings just behind him in their half folded position. These 2 + 2 style wings were going to mean more work, but were critical to getting the character right.

"They're made out of what?!"
I wanted to make a pair of wings that would not only be faithful to the character, but wings that would have some degree of superhero-ness reflected in every detail. The first place this was reclected in the project was the base material. In order to be able to walk around with a set wings with a 10-11 foot wingspan and not develop a hernia by the end of the comic con but also maintain the right aesthetic, they had to be light, but strong enough to support their own weight with minimal reinforcement. For this I decided to make the wings from aircraft-grade, 7075 alloy aluminum. This allowed me to keep the wings light (about 19 pounds in the end) by using 1/32" thin sheets that would still be strong enough to resist bending and warping. Using the 7075 alloy also makes the wings to be extremely resistant to dents or creases. This comes in handy since no matter how careful you are, you're bound to bump into things when you're wearing a giant pair of wings.

"They Move?!"
Originally, the wings were meant to be actuated by shape memory alloy, but when the intricacies of the material made it too difficult for this application, I decided to go with regular servos. Turns out this worked better than I could have hoped. Whereas the shape memory alloy would only give 20 degrees or so of flex per wing joint, the servos offer full range of motion. The wing panels are joined together with spring hinges that cause them to expand as the default position. High strength fishing line is attached to each wing panel and servo so that winding the servos in one direction pulls in the wings inward while the other direction allows them to expand outward. (Video of early proof of concept, testing the servo/spring hinge/fishing line method)

A little sloppy, I know. Still not bad for my first ever attempt at making something wearable
"Are you controlling them with your brain?!"
The character Archangel always had a very strong attachment to his wings. Because of this I wanted the control interface to be more than just pushing buttons, switches or knobs. My original plan was to incorporate a heart rate sensor and have the wings flap proportionally to my own heart rate. Unfortunately, I couldn't get my hands on the correct sensor, so I decided to switch to a data glove type setup. Using spandex gloves, conductive thread and fabric, I'm able to control each of the servos individually by lightly pressing my finger tips together. Because people are usually distracted by the wings, they don't see me pressing my fingers together which leads them to ask me if they are brain controlled. I'm going to put that down as a win. I'm pretty happy with how they turned out. Here is a video of them in action.

I am particularly proud of the results from moving the circuitry from the breadboard to the protoboard. I know that making a custom printed circuit board for the project would reduce the size even further, but my skills haven't quite evolved to that level. However, I managed to fit everything into a 4xAA battery case that I hollowed out and added a plexiglas window to. In hindsight, I will never use enamel coated magnet wire for this kind of application again. I was seduced by its remarkably thin profile, which allowed me to run five wires from my hand to the Arduino brain on the backplate while still maintaining a minimal tech presence, but it fatigues and fails very easily. Below are photos comparing the Arduino Uno based breadboard setup and the Arduino Pro Mini based protoboard setup.

Breadboard setup
Protoboard setup
Protoboard setup in housing

Finishing Touches
After the main work was done came the cosmetics. Using some fairly coarse grain sandpaper wrapped around a sponge mop, I gave the aluminum a brushed finish that cleaned away almost all the imperfections and surface stains from greasy fingers. Then using a diamond bit on a dremel, I etched lines into the wings to match those found on the character. I really wanted to highlight the metal itself, so drawing or painting the lines on the wings was out. It took a while. And when I say a while, I mean for... ever. But, it was worth it. Because of the way the light reflects off of the aluminum, the lines really pop. When the wings are in shade, the lines appear brighter, when the wings are brightly illuminated, the lines appear darker. After the brushing and etching I coated them in clear lacquer to protect the finish. To the right is an image of the rear wings comparing the look of the raw metal to the finished treatment.

Once the wings were finished, they just needed to be mounted onto the aluminum backplate (a re-purposed scuba diver's backplate) and connected to the servos and electronics.

"Why are you wearing a spandex onesie?"
Thankfully, I didnt hear that question even once, so I take that to mean that people were ok with it. Before I move on, I must say that my skills with a needle and thread are no where near my skills with a soldering iron, and even then I am a beginner. With that disclaimer, I think the suit turned out ok, though I hope to redo it with the skills and experience I gained from doing it the first time around. Below is a picture of the completed wings and body suit. Enjoy :)