The daughters of Asheville author Robert Beatty are making museum-quality robots in their home studio.
The art of creation is in full force at the Robert Beatty household.
Without a TV for mindless distraction, the family finds other ways to entertain themselves. You might say their South Asheville home is a portal for inspiration and imagination.
But, of course, all dreams require action and the Beattys are definitely rolling up their sleeves and putting in the hours to move their goals into the reality phase.
You may have heard his name before—he’s the author of the wildly-popular Serafina novels set at Biltmore Estate.
Serafina is an unusual 12-year-old girl who lives secretly in George Vanderbilt’s mansion.
As she finds herself caught up in mysteries at America’s largest private residence, she uses her own resourcefulness to find answers.
Disney-Hyperion published “Serafina and the Black Cloak” in July 2015, followed by “Serafina and the Twisted Staff” in July 2016.
Beatty is now at work on the third title in the series and says he’s ending it in such a way to allow the possibility of future books in the series.
Beatty and his wife have three daughters, ages 4, 14 and 16. He draws inspiration from them in creating his middle grades novels.
The books are also popular among adult readers.
“The main thing is that I’ve always loved Biltmore and my family and I would go there all the time,” he says. “When I decided to write a story with a young heroine, I thought that would be an excellent place to do it because my daughters and I know it so well and they would enjoy hearing a story that takes place in a place that they know. And they could help me create it and develop the story and the character.”
The older two girls would race home from school while he was writing the first book and demand to hear the latest additions.
If he hadn’t written that day, they would say, “We’ve been at school all day. What have you been doing?”
When he did have new installments to read, they would toss in their own suggestions and tell him more about how Serafina would react and respond in certain situations.
They explored Biltmore often during the process, but they didn’t have any special access to areas of the house not offered on tours.
That has since changed. Along with the success of the first book—it was on the New York Times’ Bestseller’s List for 20 weeks—the Cecil and Pickering families, descendants of George Vanderbilt who operate Biltmore Estate today, have offered Beatty and his family a more in-depth look at the house.
“They’ve taken me all throughout the house now,” he says. Among those spaces include attics as well as parts of the sub-basement that he could only imagine when writing the first book.
“Before the book got published, I had gone on one premium tour and went down and saw the electric dynamo, and the boiler room and the transformer room, but I hadn’t gone farther into the sub-basement,” he said. “In the story, I imagined brick-lined corridors that went deep under the house. I imagined that and hoped they were there. Later, after the book was published and I had a relationship with the house, I went down there and was amazed at how extensive the corridors and rooms are down there. You could easily imagine how Serafina could live down there and no one would ever know.”
Secrets at the Beatty Home
While Beatty plots Serafina’s life in the bowels of Biltmore Estate, his own daughters have built a somewhat-secret business in the family garage.
Around the time Beatty was crafting the first novel, his oldest daughter, Camille, became intrigued with the mechanics of her toys.
She would take them apart and quiz her dad on the function of interesting pieces. She began dismantling clocks and other objects, and Beatty, recognizing an opportunity to encourage her interest, asked if she wanted to build something.
Camille was 12 at the time and Genevieve was 10. They agreed wholeheartedly on a project.
They wanted to build a robot and fashion it after one they had seen in “Clone Wars,” a “Star Wars” spin off.
Robert warned them that such a project would require a lot of patience, discipline and determination.
Camille and Genevieve weren’t deterred by the thought of hard work. They dove into the project and anytime they became stumped, they joined dad in watching YouTube videos and reading instructions to find solutions.
“We finished this robot in a couple of weeks,” says Camille. “We said, ‘Okay, what’s next?’ We started building robot after robot finding different ways to design them and different ways to challenge ourselves.”
Proud of their creations, they began a technology blog to let family and friends know about their projects. They were generous in telling exactly how they made their robots, where they sourced parts or how they made their own, and what new projects they were working on.
What they didn’t expect is that other people started keeping up with the Beatty Robotics blog as well.
“We became quite popular among other people who are part of the make revolution and other robot builders and do-it-yourselfers and electrical project people. We got a following that way,” Beatty says.
One day the family watched a documentary about the Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers and that led to new inspiration.
“We’re 15 minutes into this documentary and my kids see Spirit and Opportunity and it’s got solar panels and heads that stick up with a mast and it looks like it has eyes and they said, ‘Dad, we’ve got to build one of those.’"
This project became pivotal in achieving national and even world-wide attention for Beatty Robotics.
Once they completed their Mars Rover replica, they got a call from the New York Hall of Science, a premier hands-on science museum in New York City.
The museum has a big Mars exhibit and replica of the Mars landscape. The robot they had was showing wear and tear and they needed an update, so managers googled and wound up on Beatty Robotics website.
Camille describes their excitement and amazement that a New York Museum was asking for their expertise.
“Here we are working out of our garage. We’re using Radio Shack parts to cull together these robots and this New York museum is asking us for a robot. And this robot is going to have to function throughout the entire day with children of all ages coming and messing with the controls,” she said.
They completed a Mars rover replica, installed it in the New York Hall of Science, and then participated in the Museum’s World Maker Faire where they won the editor’s choice award and also made contacts with NASA.
“The director of NASA wrote a letter of commendation and they got a big poster of the real Mars Rover and all the engineers at NASA signed it and sent their congratulations,” Beatty says.
“We kept building our robots,” says Camille. “Then a museum in Prague asked us to build robots for them.”
When they started out they would buy parts or source from objects they found. Their first robots had eyes that were the insides of lights that they took apart.
They’ve upgraded their garage workspace to include all of the equipment needed to fabricate their own parts out of raw metal. Fourteen-year-old Genevieve has become a pro at soldering.
An invitation also came from Washington to take part in the first White House Maker Faire in June 2014.
In his remarks, President Obama named Camille and Genevieve and gave nod to their accomplishment.
He said, in part, “the Beattys say one of the main things they’ve learned over the last few years isn’t about power tools or engineering or electronics. What they’ve learned is that, ‘if you can imagine it, then you can do it — whatever it is.’ And that’s a pretty good motto for America.”
There’s no end to the demand for new work.
The newest project proposal came from a small space company in the U.K. They want to partner with Beatty Robotics to put a lunar rover on the moon.
“I don’t know if they’ll get the funding to create the rocket they need,” Beatty says. “There’s a lot of ifs in there, but it’s fun to be involved in a real space program.”
Camille has also been invited to speak at different events including a prestigious worldwide consortium held in Madrid, Spain, on the effects of artificial intelligence and robots on the global work labor force and job market.
“I talked about how I really enjoy touching people and how I want to make a difference in the world,” says Camille, who is fluent in Spanish. “So one of the ways I’m trying to do that now is simply by educating women, in particular, and children that they can do this type of thing. We learned through the Internet. We never went to school for this. We’re not part of a STEM school. We’re not part of a group. We did this ourselves. So I’m going out there and telling people that you can go out in the world and make a difference.”
Tying the Two Worlds Together
If you look closely at the book trailers and print ads for the Serafina books, you will see Camille and Genevieve, dressed in period clothes, portraying characters from their father’s books.
The teens also continue to make suggestions for the novel that’s currently in-progress.
Details of Beatty’s books can be found at robert-beatty.com and he maintains an active Facebook page at www.facebook.com/serafinaandtheblackcloak.
At times, there are contests where the prize is a personally guided behind-the-scenes tour given by Beatty to some of the places at Biltmore Estate that Serafina would have gone such as the sub-basement and the organ loft.
Meanwhile, the latest robotic projects are updated at Beatty-Robotics.com. It includes photos, videos, comments from fans, and other information about their creations.