A wish come true: Colorado State University alum engineers pet dragon for teenage cancer survivor

Electrical Engineering alumnae Victoria Bohannon-Pea with the animatronic dragon she developed.
Electrical engineering alumna Victoria Bohannon-Pea led the development of Belle’s pet dragon. Credit: Ellen Jaskol

Behind every engineering marvel are creative people with passion to transform lives. People like Colorado State University alumna Victoria Bohannon-Pea.

In her role as engineering services project manager for Arrow Electronics, she harnessed innovation to bring a pet dragon to life – and give wings to a young girl’s dream together with Make-a-Wish Colorado.

Bohannon-Pea, who earned her bachelor’s degree at CSU in Electrical Engineering in 2017, led the design and development of a mythical animal companion for Belle, a 14-year-old girl living with cancer.

Belle’s wish

Belle is an imaginative, book-loving teenager who dreamed of owning a pet. But when her cancer diagnosis made that dream impossible, Belle drew inspiration from her favorite fantasy books to envision a new kind of companion: a pet dragon.

Photo of Belle and her dragon on the reveal day.
Belle and her dragon on the reveal day.

Mixing the magic of the imaginary world with the benefits of a furry friend, Belle asked Make-a-Wish for an interactive, playful pet that resembles a SilkWing dragon from the Wings of Fire book series.

Make-a-Wish turned to Arrow for assistance, and Bohannon-Pea jumped at the opportunity to help realize Belle’s dream.

“At first I thought, this is going to be totally awesome. She’s going to have a dog that looks like a dragon,” said Bohannon-Pea. “But I wasn’t sure how we were going to build a robot that could be so loveable and lifelike.”

Eighteen months later, on a mystic morning at the Cherokee Castle in Sedalia, Colorado, those doubts melted away as Bohannon-Pea revealed the stunning finished product to Belle.

“She fell in love with it,” said Bohannon-Pea.

The making of a pet dragon

Belle’s dragon exemplifies the power of human ingenuity.

Capable of meaningful connection and companionship, it’s not just a fancy toy. The 17-pound, pink-and-purple robot commands attention with its 3-D printed scales and elaborate butterfly wings that glimmer in natural light. Embedded with sensors all over its body, the dragon can flap its wings, purr, and respond to touch. Mimicking a live pet, it shows displeasure toward certain foods and yawns when it is tired. Motor-controlled eyelids cover the dragon’s intricately handpainted eyes to enhance its ability to engage.

Bohannon-Pea’s colleagues know her as the “Dragon Builder.”

In addition to meticulously managing its day-to-day development, she assembled an international team of high-tech heavy hitters for the creation of the dragon, from robot innovator Caleb Chung, maker of the “Furby” who led the prototyping, to partners at Analog Devices who helped manufacture cutting-edge components.

“The project management was just as complex as the engineering,” said Bohannon-Pea. “Especially during the height of pandemic when we couldn’t visit our partners in person.”

Guided by Belle’s vision and personal drawings, Bohannon-Pea leveraged her electrical engineering knowledge to source the technology for the dragon’s “brains,” from firmware that controls the internal components to software that drives animation. She also led the team in creating a new system for squeezing essential components inside the dragon’s graceful form, including three microcontroller boards, 25 motors, 12 rechargeable batteries, and a maze of wires and cables.

A career with purpose

Bohannon-Pea started her career with Arrow as an intern. She chose electrical engineering because she wanted to use technology to create a better world. This year, her own wish came true when she was nominated for a 2021 Lewis Latimer Edison Award for her life-changing work to build Belle’s dragon.

Bohannon-Pea said her CSU education not only prepared her for the challenges of a high-tech career, but it also helped her learn the importance of time management. As a first-generation college student and recipient of the Eads Family Scholarship, she was actively involved in student organizations on campus, such as the National Society of Black Engineers.

Her advice to future and current engineering students: “Drop your pride and don’t be afraid to ask for help. While the coursework can be challenging, the payoff is worth it.”