It’s December! You’ve been saving money all year by eating uncooked bricks of ramen noodles and drinking off-brand sodas because they’re cheaper than water. It’s all about to pay off, since you can buy yourself all these robots. All. Of. Them.
This guide includes new products released in 2014, as well as robots from previous years that we still like. And if you need even more ideas, our guides from 2013 and 2012 are still definitely worth a look, as they contain many robots that are still incredibly awesome, just not incredibly new.
The 2014 guide is by no means exhaustive: we write about a lot of robots around here. But we’re limiting ourselves to things that you can plausibly purchase right now (or soon), which means that things like Kickstarter are out of the running. And while we provide links to places where you can get these robots, we’re not endorsing any in particular, and a little bit of searching may result in better deals. (All prices in US dollars.)
Lastly, if you think we missed the best robot thing (or things) of the year, let us know in the comments.
Parrot Bebop Drone
Parrot’s been making awesome and affordable consumer drones for as long as anyone, and their “prosumer” Bebop doesn’t disappoint. It’s powerful and rugged, with built-in self stabilization and an innovative camera system that promises to play very well with VR headsets like the Oculus Rift. We loved flying it, and we loved crashing it.
We’re almost (almost) more excited for Parrot’s Skycontroller than we are for the Bebop drone that comes with it. For hardcore R/C aircraft pilots, analog sticks are a must, and trying to deal with a touchscreen makes precision flight maddeningly difficult. The Skycontroller is perfectly set up, with all the controls and indicators that you could possibly want, a huge screen, and an even huger Wi-Fi antenna that can communicate with the drone out to a couple kilometers. It comes optionally bundled with the Bebop, but (should be) also available on its own.
B&H Photo (listed as on pre-order but supposed to be available this month)
Parrot MiniDrone Rolling Spider
We know that some of Parrot’s stuff can tend towards the expensive, and they know it too. The MiniDrone we saw at CES back in January is now called the Rolling Spider, and you can score it for (relatively) cheap. It’s all of the brains that makes the AR Drone easy to fly, somehow packed into a tiny little package that you control with your phone.
Aldebaran Robotics NAO Evolution
NAO has been in our gift guides before, and we’ve always considered it the humanoid robot to get if you want a serious humanoid robot (and have some serious amount of cash lying around). At $16,000, it was a lot to ask, but earlier this year, Aldebaran cut the price of the little robot by 50 percent. Well, $8,000 is still a lot to ask, but it’s way better, and the lower price doesn’t diminsh the capabilities of the robot at all. There’s a reason we see it all over the place in human-robot interaction research, in autism programs, and at RoboCup: it’s a platform for pros.
After playing with Anki Drive a little bit this year, we think that the new lower price of $100 for the starter track and cars is much more reasonable. You’ll still need an iPad or iPhone with compatible Bluetooth, and be warned: if you’re old and boring like we are, you might get tired of playing with Anki fairly quickly. You can still appreciate the tech, though, like Travis Deyle did recently on Hizook, and kids will probably have a lot more fun with the little weaponized robot cars than you will.
Introduced last year at CES as the 2B, Ollie from Orbotix (they also make Sphero) is fast and robust and seems like a fun take on an R/C car. The reason we like it, though, is that Orbotix has been great about giving developers access to their robots, and there’s a bunch of available software that you can use to progam Ollie and make it do things that are actually, you know, robotic.
Modular Robotics MOSS
We’ve been fans of Modular Robotics’ Cubelets for years, and MOSS is their latest adventure in easy to build modular robots. After getting piles of money on one of those Kickstarters that starts off modestly and then goes bananas, MOSS is now available even if you didn’t get in early on the crowdfunding. With plenty of options for kits, it’s ideal for someone who’s tactile and wants to build robots without having to immediately worry about programming.
Dyson 360 Eye Vacuum
Dyson surprised everyone earlier this year when, out of nowhere, they suddently had a consumer robot vacuum: the 360 Eye. They spent a ridiculous amount of time and money putting it together, and we’re excited to see it perform: with the powerful guts that all Dyson vacuums are known for combined with 360 degree visual localization, it might have a chance to best Roomba’s multi-pass cleaning method in both efficiency and effectiveness. You might have some trouble finding the 360 Eye before 2015, but the best chance to get one is to be in Japan, which apparently is where the vacuum will go on sale first.
The Dyson may be new and fancy (and expensive), but iRobot has been refining their cleaning robots for years, over multiple generations of real world consumer use. Their latest is the Scooba 450, which improves on its floor-scrubbing predecessors by adding a vacuum, so that it can completely clean your kitchen floor: first it vacuums, then it soaks, then it scrubs, then it rinses and squeegees. Now all you’ll have to worry about is cooking.
Of the mobile telepresence platforms out there, Beam+ is one of our favorites. The BeamPro is fantastic, but it’s only really affordable for businesses. The Beam+ takes much of what made the BeamPro so good and makes it a little bit smaller and a whole lot cheaper, and from what we’ve seen, it’s the best telepresence experience you’ll ever get at that price point. Suitable Tech’s website says Beams are shipping this holiday season.
Swivl is a robotic dock for iPads (it also works with iPhones, Android devices, and DSLR cameras), and it’s designed for people who do a lot of video recording or a lot of teleconferencing. You hold a little remote control thing-y (see photo, bottom right), and Swivl tracks the device, keeping the iPad camera pointed at you as you move around in a room. The company says a lot of video enthusiasts and creators of educational content are using Swivl to record presentations (the Swivl app automatically stores the videos in the cloud). It’s also handy if you can’t stand still during a Skype or Facetime call—Swivl will track you while you walk and talk.
Remember the WheeMe? We first met it at CES four years ago, and they’ve since released a new version, but the idea is still the same: the WheeMe drives up and down your back while its body vibrates and its four sprocket wheels press on your skin. We’re not sure we can call it a “robot,” but it does use tilt sensors to move around without falling off your body. You can also attach some plastic bristles to the top of the device, and they’ll spin and caress your back (“best feeling is reached while not wearing a shirt or blouse,” the manual says). The WheeMe is quite light (330 grams with three AA batteries), so don’t expect a deep-tissue massage—and do expect tickles.
Dash & Dot
After a succesfull crowdsourcing campaign, Wonder Workshop is making its educational robots Dash and Dot available for purchase, along with a host of accessories. One of the cool things about the robots (created by a group of Silicon Valley engineers) is that, by playing with them, kids can learn basic programming skills. An easy-to-use iPad app works as the main interface for controlling the robots, which can move, detect obstacles, and emit sounds. The robots are “designed for kids aged 5 to infinity.”
Darwin-OP, the $12,000 humanoid created by Dennis Hong of UCLA and South Korean robotics company ROBOTIS, is perfect for education and research, but too advanced (and costly) for hobbyists and consumers. Maybe that’s why ROBOTIS decided to create a simpler, smaller version of the robot called Darwin Mini. Its 27-centimeter-tall body is packed with 16 Dynamixel actuators, which means it can perform some impressive maneuvers for such a small robot, including throwing punches, kicking a ball, and doing somersaults. You control and program the robot using an Android app on your smartphone or tablet. Just keep in mind that, before you can have the Darwin Mini you see in the photo above, you have to put it together. Of course, that’s part of the fun.
Aldebaran Robotics Pepper
For the ultimate robot gift, look no further than Pepper, from Aldebaran Robotics. It’s big. It’s sleek. It’s stylish. It’s personable. It’ll talk to you, understand your emotions, and be your friend. Aldebaran says that their ultimate goal is “for Pepper to live with humans” (that’s you!) and while Pepper’s initial home will be in SoftBank and Nescafé stores, it will (reportedly) be on sale in Japan early next year for an incomprehensibly low price. And, um, if you buy one of these, let us know.
If you need even more tech gift ideas, check out IEEE Spectrum’s annual Gift Guide.
Erico Guizzo is the digital product manager at IEEE Spectrum. An IEEE Member, he is an electrical engineer by training and has a master’s degree in science writing from MIT.