Robot kits for kids (hey, and robot-loving grown-ups, too!)

Each year I get a handful of family members and acquaintances asking if I know about any robot kits their kids or grandkids might like for [insert winter holiday of choice here]. Since I know the question is coming from one of my uncles this year (howdy, Uncle Jim!), I figured I'd head it off at the pass and write it all down now for anyone else who's asking the same question.

So after the jump, ladies and gents -- the Automaton Guide to Robot Kits, Version 1.0!

Just a quick note: the "Ages" field below is based on my own experience with how these kits are used as well as with the information on the products' websites about which classrooms they're used in. Your mileage may vary, depending on the student's experience with programming and building -- or, for that matter, on the parent's experience!

Also, think I missed a great robot kit? Leave a comment to let me know! The ones listed below are based on my experience -- I'm always excited to learn about more.

Now, on to the robots...

LEGO Mindstorms

Price: $249.99

Ages: Elementary school and up

Website: http://mindstorms.lego.com/

Everyone knows the LEGO Mindstorms. LEGO just came out last year with its NXT version of the system, which updated the programming brick and got a lot of people excited about the new possibilities. Users obviously use LEGO bricks to build their platform, and the programming environment uses a LEGO brick metaphor driven by LabView to help young programmers write their own software. In addition to servo motors, the kit includes ultrasonic, light, and sound sensors, to name a few, to expand the robot's capabilities. I'll have more to say about the Mindstorms in a few weeks... (suspense!)

VEX kit

Price: Starter Kit $299; Programming kit $99

Ages: Middle school and up

Website: http://www.vexlabs.com/

The VEX kit was originally developed with the FIRST Competition in mind. It's something of a combination of an Erector Set and a LEGO Mindstorm kit. Building materials made of steel, plastic, and rubber, as well as components like motors, allow you to build your own platform for any task you can think of. Using the starter kit, you can plug the motors into pre-set PWM outputs on the controller that correspond to joysticks on the RC unit; the additional programming kit can be purchased so that programs written in EasyC can be downloaded and executed on the controller module.

iRobot Create

Price: Bare bones $129.00; With battery and command module, $229.99

Ages: High school and up

Website:http://www.irobot.com/sp.cfm?pageid=305

Once iRobot realized that hackers loved to play with Roombas, they saw an opportunity. After stripping the vacuum components out of the Roomba they designed a command module to allow users to integrate sensors and other peripherals onto the platform: thus, the Create was born. Create allows users to build up payloads on top of the platform, but the actual mobile platform is already made for you; programming is done using the free Microsoft Robotics Studio (previously discussed on Automaton). iRobot employees had an internal competition to see what they could do with the Create -- the results are here. The hamster ball is my favorite.

Parallax BOE-bot

Price: $149.95

Ages: Middle school and up

Website: http://www.parallax.com/html_pages/robotics/boebot/boebot.asp

Oh, the BOE-bot. Much as I hate to admit this, I built one of these in high school and took it to senior prom as my date. (Sadly, I'm not kidding at all. He even had a little bow tie!) The BOE-bot uses the BASIC Stamp module and the pre-built "Board of Education" (that's the "BOE") to get users up and running. The Board of Education allows for breadboarding of your own circuitry, and the kit comes with extras like bump sensors that can the BOE-bot can use to interact with its environment, but it's mostly a programming platform. BOE-bots are programmed in PBASIC; the kit comes with a manual full of sample code that can easily get a novice user up and running.

PicoCricket

Price: $250

Ages: Elementary school and up

Website: http://www.picocricket.com/index.html

This isn't exactly a robot kit, but I wanted to include it. The PicoCricket was developed by the MIT Media Lab's Lifelong Kindergarten group in the spirit of the Lego Mindstorms programmable brick. The Cricket is meant to be used in any electromechanical system, which may include robots, but the website shows ideas like musical birthday cakes and kinetic sculptures. Using a Cricket involves both building and programming -- and the programming is done in a block-metaphor IDE similar to the LEGO programming environment.

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Automaton

IEEE Spectrum's award-winning robotics blog, featuring news, articles, and videos on robots, humanoids, automation, artificial intelligence, and more.
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