With the holidays just around the corner, now is a good time to step back and reflect on the things that really matter: family, friends, what robots you’d like to get this year. This guide, with 17 suggestions for all ages, interests, and pockets, is by no means exhaustive. There are lots of great robots out there. But we’re limiting ourselves to products that you can purchase right now, which means that things like Kickstarter are out of the running. With this year’s selection, we tried to cover three main categories: DRONES, ROBOT TOYS & KITS,and HOME ROBOTS. Our list includes new products released in 2015 but also robots from previous years that we still like (check out more ideas from our 2014 and 2013 guides). We tested many of these bots ourselves, and we plan to post in-depth reviews sometime soon. And while we provide links to places where you can buy these items, we’re not endorsing any in particular, and a little bit of searching may result in better deals (all prices are in U.S. dollars). Lastly, if you think we missed the best robot thing (or things) of the year, let us know in the comments.
Starter Drone: Parrot AR Drone 2.0
Even though Parrot’s AR Drone is several years old at this point, we haven’t seen a drone that’s a better combination of affordability, usability, and ruggedness. The built-in stabilization makes the drone incredibly easy to fly, and we’ve dropped ours from 10 meters up onto the street (oops) and it was somehow completely fine. It’s not going to give you professional video or anything, but it’s a lot of fun to play with, and cheap enough that you don’t have to be so scared of crashing it that you never do anything cool with it. A great starter drone.
Camera Drone: DJI Phantom 2 With Gimbal
Ready to step up to a drone with a serious camera attached? DJI’s Phantom 2 is pretty much ready to go out of the box, and this one comes with a gimbal that’s designed to mount a GoPro. We like this better than DJI’s models with integrated camera systems, because it gives you the freedom to swap out GoPros if you get a better one, and GoPros are both rugged and cheap, especially if you pick up a used one. The Phantom 2 is going to be more complicated to fly than an AR Drone, but it includes lots of useful features, including the ability to autonomously navigate back to you if you lose it.
Photo: 3D Robotics
Why build a drone from a kit? Well, why not? 3D Robotics makes some of the best drones around, and this kit comes with everything you need besides a battery and radios. You even get a Pixhawk autopilot and GPS module included, which is one of the most popular systems out there, with tons of community support. Hey, why not use this kit as a base to build yourself a delivery drone? Everyone’s doing it, and we hear it’s a fantastic idea that is definitely going to, you know, take off.
ROBOT TOYS & KITS
If you want to get started in robotics by building a cool little robot that doesn’t require soldering parts or programming a microcontroller, the Robotis Mini is a great choice. Assembling this 27-centimeter tall humanoid is a lot of fun. The plastic parts and the 16 actuators are really well made, and the instructions offer clear, step-by-step directions, although if you have kids you might want to enlist them (and their little hands) to help you with the tiny rivets. The smartphone-controlled Mini can walk, dance, kick, punch, and even do headstands and rolls. This year, Robotis added support for iOS, so now you can control the robot with an iPhone (you’ll need an additional $20 part) or Android phone. For more advanced users, the company offers software and extra sensors that let you program new robot behaviors.
ROBOT TOYS & KITS
Robotis Play 600
What about giving younger children a taste of robotics? For kids age 6+, Robotis offers the Play 600. This kit includes a bunch of colored plastic parts, which attach to each other with rivets, and one module with a motor that can be used to power wheels and legs (two AA batteries required). Kids can follow instructions to build things like a bird or puppy, or invent their own creatures. These are very simple robots (if you can even call them “robots”), but our experience is that kids don’t care: they’ll enjoy playing with their new mechanical friends. And we’d say that even four- and five-year-olds, with a little help from a grown-up, can have fun with this kit.
ROBOT TOYS & KITS
We have Lego Mindstorms in our gift guide just about every year, because it’s a really fantastic introduction to robots that can be extended in reasonably sophisticated ways. Kids should take to it quickly, because it’s based on Lego, plus an easy to use drag-and-drop programming application. There are instructions to make a handful of programmable and interactive robots with the provided parts, but as always, the best part about Lego is the fact that you can do whatever you want, and mix in pieces from other sets, too. It’s not cheap, but it comes with lots of potential, including as an entry point into FIRST Lego League competitions.
ROBOT TOYS & KITS
The SPRK edition of Sphero’s robotic ball is focused on learning how to program in an engaging way that leverages a physical robot. Using a C-based language called OVAL, you can move code blocks around through an app on your phone, and then immediately see what effects they have on the behavior of your round little bot. According to Sphero, SPRK is “simple enough for beginners of all ages, yet sophisticated enough for seasoned programmers.”
ROBOT TOYS & KITS
RobotGeek Snapper Arduino Robotic Arm
Photo: Trossen Robotics
A robot arm is the big secret to robots that can, you know, actually do stuff. Lifting heavy payloads takes big expensive motors, but if you can make do with a maximum payload of 50 grams, the Snapper arm, created by RobotGeek, will do everything you need. It includes an Arduino board for control, a power supply, and enough servos to give it 5 degrees of freedom. It’s easy to modify and upgrade, and at just 1 kilogram total weight, it’s probably light enough to mount on your Create or Turtlebot.
ROBOT TOYS & KITS
Photo: Clearpath Robotics
Our old friend Turtlebot has seen some upgrades recently, most notably the replacement of the Microsoft Kinect sensor with the Asus Xtion Pro Live, along with a significantly better laptop brain. The simple fact is that if you want to learn how to use ROS (and you do want to learn how to use ROS, right?), there’s arguably no better, more capable, more affordable platform to do it on. Turtlebot is easy enough to use that you can get started on it right away (thanks to some excellent online tutorials for beginners), but since it runs the full version of ROS, it can be a serious research and experimentation platform at the same time.
Beam+ Smart Presence System
Photo: Suitable Technologies
When we first tried telepresence robots several years ago, they were fun to use, but cost way too much and were mostly unreliable. Now these machines are proving to be effective collaboration tools, and the best offering on the market is by far the Beam remote presence system developed by Suitable Technologies. You can find the BeamPro at events and offices everywhere these days. More recently the company unveiled the Beam+, a less expensive and more compact system for homes and small businesses. It features excellent two-way audio and video, thanks to a pair of HDR cameras and a microphone array. Driving it is incredibly easy, and the battery provides 2 hours of operation (a charging dock is included). One thing we missed in a recent test was the ability to control the robot using a smartphone, but Suitable says it will demo an app in January.
We don’t know about you, but after mowing the lawn week after week during the hot days of summer, we decided this is a task best left to robots. Robotic lawn mowers have been around for a while, and one of the pioneers in this market is Robomow, whose machines have been getting better, smarter, and easier to use over the years. For a relatively small yard (up to 600 square meters, or 6,500 square feet), Robomow offers the RC306, a compact mower that can operate based on a schedule and dock itself on a base station to charge. Setting up a perimeter wire to tell the robot where to go and where not to go takes some time, but once you’re done, you can sit back and relax as the robot does its job. And using your phone and the Robomow app, you can decide when and how often to mow with just a few taps.
iRobot Roomba 980
iRobot’s latest version of its vacuum robot includes several new technologies that are worth getting excited about: besides more suckage on carpet and a dedicated app, the Roomba 980 uses a camera (and vSLAM) to map out your pad and then vacuum intelligently, in straight lines. This makes it both more efficient, as well as capable of vacuuming a whole bunch of rooms (and recharging in between) without you having to mess with it. We’ve been testing out one of these, and we’ll have a review up at the end of the month, but spoiler alert: we really like it.
iRobot Roomba 560 (Refurbished)
While it’s true that the Roomba 980 has some cool mapping technology and other improvements, we’ve had excellent experiences with Roombas for years and years, and now is an excellent time to pick up an older model Roomba for cheap. The Roomba 560 is a totally solid robot vacuum that includes an autonomous charging home base, a scheduling feature, and a couple virtual walls. The refurbished ones on Amazon are certified factory refurbished from iRobot, and come with a three-month warranty, for under $300. A great deal, especially if you’ve never had a Roomba before.
Dyson 360 Eye
What, the Roomba 980 isn’t fancy and expensive enough for you? Fine: have someone in Japan snag you one of Dyson’s robot vacuums that they’ve been working on for like 16 years. The Dyson 360 Eye doesn’t have a lot of battery life, but it does have a stupendously powerful vacuum, and since it can localize itself, it has no problem recharging itself however many times it takes to clean every square centimeter of your place. Oh, and it’s got tank treads too, which is pretty sweet.
Ecovacs Deebot D77
What’s better than a robot that cleans your floors? A robot that cleans your floors and then cleans itself. You see, one of the biggest annoyances of robotic vacuums is that, even though they do the hard work, you still have to frequently empty their dust bins, which are small and fill up fast. Ecovacs set out to solve that problem with the Deebot D77, which features a special dock that automatically sucks the dirt out of the robot’s bin when it comes to recharge. We found the buttons and display on the D77 a bit confusing, but once we’d figured things out, it did a decent job vacuuming several rooms and then emptying itself. The dock, by the way, has a canister vacuum that you can detach and use as a portable unit to clean things that robots (still) can’t clean, like curtains and ceilings. And here’s the best part: Ecovacs just slashed the price from $600 to $300.
Robots are said to be best for tasks that are dull, dirty, or dangerous, and it turns out there’s a household chore that meets all those criteria: cleaning gutters. With iRobot’s Looj, forget about climbing up a ladder multiple times to manually remove leaves, debris, and sludge; now you have to climb only once, to place the robot on the gutter and watch it as it does its thing, cleaning up a 30-foot section in 5 minutes. (Just make sure no one is standing below the gutters: leaves and dirt will go flying everywhere.) The machine is waterproof, so after the job is done, you can simply rinse it with a hose.
4Moms Origami Stroller
Lots of things around us are becoming smarter and more automated—in a sense, more robotic—but we didn’t expect a baby stroller to be one of them. The Origami, unveiled a few years ago by an innovative Pittsburgh company called 4Moms, can open and close all by itself with the push of a button. If you think that’s a frivolous feature, try imagining how many times a parent has to fold and unfold a stroller when taking it in and out of the house or a car. (Trust us—we’ve been there.) We wouldn’t recommend the Origami if you had to plug it in to charge its battery, but thanks to small electricity generators on its rear wheels, you don’t have to do that. And with an additional connector, it can also charge your phone.
Erico Guizzo is the Director of Digital Innovation at IEEE Spectrum, and cofounder of the IEEE Robots Guide, an award-winning interactive site about robotics. He oversees the operation, integration, and new feature development for all digital properties and platforms, including the Spectrum website, newsletters, CMS, editorial workflow systems, and analytics and AI tools. An IEEE Member, he is an electrical engineer by training and has a master’s degree in science writing from MIT.
Evan Ackerman is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and technology. He has a degree in Martian geology and is excellent at playing bagpipes.