2012 Robot Gift Guide

We hope you've been saving up all year, because we have thousands of dollars of robots for you to blow all your hard-earned money on

5 min read
2012 Robot Gift Guide

'Holiday Robots' by Aimee Wilder; buy her fantastic artwork here.

Whatever holiday you celebrate, this season is all about family gettin' stuff from other people. Unfortunately, we don't usually get to decide what stuff that is. So if you want a robot, you have two options: option one is to send this gift guide to everyone you know with your top three choices highlighted and dire threats upon receipt of anything else. Option two is to use the guide yourself, buy whatever robot(s) you want for the least appropriate member of your immediate family, and then offer to "help" them with it.

In either case, we've put together this list of twelve robots that any serious (or not so) roboticist would love to add to their collection. Enjoy!


AR Drone 2.0

We've been playing around with Parrot's latest version of the AR Drone. It's stupendously impressive. It's a cinch to fly right out of the box both indoors and out, and you don't need experience with robotics (or flying R/C helicopters) to immediately enjoy it without destroying anything or killing anyone. There are plenty of safety features to make sure you don't lose the drone, it self-calibrates, self-hovers, and will even compensate for crosswinds.

The AR Drone is more than a fancy toy, however. We've been seeing it show up as part of research projects more and more often, as researchers realize that they can get a cheap, reliable drone with plenty of sensors right off the shelf for what's effectively dirt cheap. Plus, you can take advantage of the AR Drone's inherent hackability as well, thanks to some wonderful AR Drone + ROS tutorials by Mike Hamer. No experience with AR Drones or ROS is necessary to begin controlling the robot directly from your computer, and it's free. How can you possibly pass that up?

Price: $270, from Amazon. Also available locally in stores like Brookstone.




As robots go, Sphero is probably the simplest one on this list. It connects to your smartphone or tablet via Bluetooth, and a tilt or to will send it rolling all over the place. It's fun to play with, but it can be a lot more than just a toy: a full API and mobile SDK for both iOS and Android enables you to get the little robotic ball to do whatever it is you've always fantasized about little robotic balls doing.

Price: $99, from Brookstone. Also available locally in stores like Target for a bit more.



TurtleBot 2

For the serious roboticist, nothing beats a TurtleBot 2. With a sensor-laden mobile base, a laptop for a brain, a Kinect, and backed by the full power of ROS, the next-gen TurtleBot offers a platform that you can program to utilize many of the software innovations currently under development at universities with PR2s at their disposal. And it's even affordable, mostly. Check out our TurtleBot 2 preview for more information.

Price: $1,600, from Clearpath Robotics or I <3 Engineering.



Neato XV-11

As much as we like the Roomba, if you want to <i>really</i> impress someone with the gift of a robot vacuum, definitely take a close look at the Neato XV-11 or XV-21. The Neato performs at least as well as the Roomba for typical vacuuming (read our comparison for more head-to-head details), it's not as expensive as many Roombas, and it's got a frikkin' LASER SCANNER in it. The XV-21 is designed for pet owners, with an upgraded brush and a better air filter.

Price: $370, from



Thymio II

It's always nice when someone decides to forego the customary profit margins and distribution costs and whatnot and just builds the best robot kit for as cheap as possible. Thymio is Swiss in origin, from EPFL, and it's really got a lot of cool stuff going on for the price.  Beginners can program it through a graphical interface, and for experts, everything (hardware and software) is open source and hackable.

Price: $200, from TechyKids. If you can wait until February, it's $140.




Robot vacuums are great, but if you have hardwood floors, you might rather have a robot Swiffer instead. Mint is small, clever, and nearly silent, and like the Neato, is able to localize itself thanks to a beacon that projects an invisible constellation of lights onto your ceiling. It cleans using wet or dry microfiber pads, and as we found, does a remarkably good job for something that appears so simple. 

Price: $199, from iRobot, for the original Mint. Also available locally in stores like Bed Bath & Beyond.



3pi Robot Kit

Line-following and maze-solving are some of the most basic, and most fun, robotics competitions, and there's no better way to get into robotics than to throw yourself into a competitive environment. Pololu's 3pi kit is an easy way to get started (especially if you want to learn C at the same time).

Price: $100, from Pololu Robotics.



Scooba 230

iRobot makes big, Roomba-sized Scoobas, but we're fans of the cute little Scooba 230. It's designed for bathrooms, but will capably clean just about any hard surface, squirting out water, scrubbing, and then vacuuming the water back up again. It's tiny, it's determined, it does a good job, and it means you don't have to scrub the bathroom floor anymore.

Price: $280, from iRobot.



LEGO Mindstorms NXT

LEGO Mindstorms has been a great entry point for roboticists for years now, which is why we keep on recommending it. Just being LEGO makes it immediately accessible to kids with previous LEGO experience, and a drag and drop programming interface (that gets as complex as you want) is easy and fun to use. Mindstorms is part of a lot of educational programs already, which means that there's a lot of support out there, as well as a huge number of peripherals that you can use to grow your set.

Price: $280, from LEGO. Also available locally in stores like Target.



PhantomX Hexapod

We love how freakily lifelike this hexapod moves. We also love the fact that it's big, and fast, and strong. You can use it as a toy, if you like, or you can use it to destroy the world. Up to you.

Price: $1,200, from Trossen Robotics.



Hummingbird Robot Kit

Hummingbird comes from a CMU spinoff, and the objective of the kit it to make building (like, from scratch) a robot as cheap and easy as possible. You get a lot of stuff to work with, including a controller board, LEDs, motors, as well as light, temperature, sound, and distance sensors, and more. No structural components are included, so instead, you're encouraged to use anything you can find lying around, like cardboard.

Price: $200, from Hummingbird Robotics.




If you really want to splurge this year, Nao's five-figure price tag ought to do it. One of the most advanced hobby-grade (or barely hobby-grade) humanoid robots available, Nao is fully mobile, with multi-fingered hands capable of human-like grasping and a ton of sensors. Like the AR Drone, Nao has been adopted by the research community as an affordable humanoid platform, meaning that all kinds of exciting things are being done with it, and you can be a little part of that. If, of course, you can afford it.

Price: $16,000, from RobotShop. $5,000 off if you buy five!



Robots for iPad App

Last but not least, if you'd like to send a cool robot gift to your friends (but you can't afford buying each a $16,000 Nao), here's a suggestion for those of them who have iPads: Robots for iPad is a fun app featuring real-world robots from around the world. It's now only $1.99 on the App Store. It's an awesome app, and not just because, ahemIEEE Spectrum is its creator; it has 126 robots from 19 countries, with hundreds of interactives, images and videos, plus interviews with roboticists, a timeline of robotics, a glossary of robot and AI terms, rankings of robots, and much more. You can learn more about it here, and you can send it to your friends as a gift by using the "Gift This App" option in the App Store. 

Price: $1.99, from Apple's App Store.

The Conversation (0)

How the U.S. Army Is Turning Robots Into Team Players

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.

"I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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