Last year I played around with the Makeblock mBot, which aimed to have a STEM style robot per child at a sub $50 price. While I don’t think they ever quite achieved that goal, they got close.
This year they’ve released a 3-in-1 version called the mBot Ranger (which is somewhere in the neighborhood of $170 as of this writing,) which includes the ability to make the device into a tank with treads, a fast moving three-wheeled concoction, and a self-balancing two wheeled form they call the Nervous Bird (the balancing isn’t transparent, you notice it catching itself and it sort of does look like a chicken).
They claim the average build time is about twenty minutes per form, which jives with my experience.
The whole thing is powered by an Arduino MEGA 2650 with inputs of Bluetooth, light sensor, ultrasonic, gyroscope, temp sensors, sound sensors, and a line follower sensor. All but the line follower I believe can be used in any form you make the robot into.
The whole thing is programmed by an app that you create projects in (or you can use it as a simple remote control and have a little RC fun).
Want to make a robot that follows lines traced on a piece of paper every time you clap? You can do that. Want to make a two wheeled monstrosity that seeks out the warmest part of the room and hangs out in it while bumping into the wall over and over? Also it can be done. Wish to make a tank that buzzes anytime it hits something or is flipped over? This mBot’s for you.
The programming app works on iOS and Android, and should work on any device that supports Bluetooth.
One of the cool things you can do if you’re contemplating getting one of these is download the Makeblock app and just see if the options look like something you’d like to attach a robot to. Programming is fairly simple to get up and running, but a bit maddeningly complex if you want it to travel back to 1984 and kill Sarah Conner.
It should be noted that if you’re very much into building from scratch, you could probably piece together all of the parts yourself much less expensively.
The first time I ever ran into something like this was in 1979 with the Big Trak. 16 commands. I ran through so many batteries and my parent’s nerves it was amazing and got me into thinking through processes logically when I was six or seven.
Also amazing that they didn’t beat me for figuring out how to program it to navigate from my living room into the bathroom to fire a laser at whoever was in the john and then return.
While I can’t claim that programming a robot got me into the high paying world of writing about babies, phones, and programmable robots, it didn’t hurt.
I’ll be posting some projects I do with this hopefully later this week (things have been hectic lately, trying to put a robot on the floor with a baby who’s convinced she’s a vacuum cleaner has not happened,) but for now go out and buy a few hundred of these and get a school district interested in the world of robotics, planning out moves, and visual programming.