Welcome to the fifth edition of our annual Robot Gift Guide! This year, we bring you a dozen robots that we think will make fantastic holiday gifts. Just as we’ve done in the past (for a quick trip through recent robotics history, check out the 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015 editions), this year’s selection includes mostly new products released in 2016 but also some items from previous years that we still like. We tested many of these bots ourselves, and you might have seen our in-depth reviews here on the blog. And while we provide prices and 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.
Photography drones don’t get much easier, safer, or cheaper than this: The Fotokite Phi, which comes from drone researchers at ETH Zurich and had a successful Indiegogo campaign last year, is now available to everyone for $250 (GoPro not included). As its name suggests, the Fotokite is attached to you by a physical leash, so you don’t have to worry about controlling it while it flies—you hold the leash and the drone follows you.
At first, we were skeptical that Anki’s Cozmo would be able to really hold our interest, but after talking with its developers, it sounds like it’s going to have some very impressive capabilities for such a little guy, along with an SDK that’s designed to give you full access to a surprising amount of intelligence and autonomy. Our advice: Get one for a kid in your life, and then steal it to play with yourself after they go to bed.
iRobot Roomba 960
We liked the Roomba 980 when we reviewed it earlier this year, and the more recent 960 is a very minor step down in features that will save you $200. You still get the visual SLAM mapping, multi-room cleaning, and app connectivity, and the fact that the 960 has a smaller battery and will need to recharge more frequently doesn’t matter all that much since it’ll pick up right where it left off. If $700 is still too steep, we can also recommend the not fancy at all but still totally decent Roomba 650, which is frequently on sale for under $300.
$700 $600 (until Dec. 3)
Neato Botvac Connected
Lasers make every robot one million times better at doing everything, and vacuums are no exception. A lidar sensor lets Neato’s robots map your house and vacuum efficiently in nice straight lines; basically, it’s like a little autonomous car that drives around your living room cleaning stuff so that you don’t have to. If you’re looking for a less expensive model, the Neato Botvac D3 is only $400, with the sacrifice of some battery capacity and a side brush (laser included!).
Photo: Dash Robotics
Born out of research at UC Berkeley, Kamigami is the absolute fastest flat-pack mostly cardboard hexapedal app-controlled indestructible robot bug on the market right now. It’s quick and easy to build yourself without any tools, and comes with a smartphone app that allows multiple robots to play games with each other, and also provides a simple programming environment. Little legged robots like these are still inspiring active research, but they’re definitely designed for consumers, with the kind of durability that means they can be thrown off a roof without taking any damage.
Robotis Play 700
Last year, Robotis introduced its Play 600 kit, which lets kids build simple robotic creatures powered by a motorized gearbox. The new Play 700 kit, released this year, uses the same colored plastic pieces and rivets, which are easy and fun to assemble, but it adds a more advanced controller whose program kids can modify. Now young roboticists (the kit is designed for ages 8+) can build a scorpion bot, a windmill, or a racecar, among other things, and change their behaviors using a smartphone and Robotis’ R+PLAY700 iOS or Android app.
Hummingbird Robotics Kit
Photo: BirdBrain Technologies
Created by Carnegie Mellon spinoff BirdBrain Technologies, the Hummingbird is a really easy to use and program controller board for getting started with robotics. The greatest thing about it is that you can easily connect components like sensors, actuators, and LEDs by inserting wires into special connectors on the board, no soldering required. The Hummingbird Duo Premium Kit includes four hobby servos, two dc gear motors, single- and tri-color LEDs, and a bunch of sensors. To program the board, you can use CREATE, a visual programming software, or the Arduino IDE.
Photo: Double Robotics
I didn’t think I would like Double’s newest telepresence robot, but I was wrong. Mobile data might not quite be up to the task of letting you wander around absolutely anywhere for absolutely anywhere else (yet), but in many situations, Double is an effective way of giving you an embodied presence in a place that you can’t be otherwise. It’s surprisingly easy to drive, and once you get past the novelty, it feels as much like being there as you can without being there. The caveat here (and it’s a big one) is that you’ll need your own iPad for the robot to work.
Parrot Disco FPV Kit
Flying Parrot’s Disco drone is an enormous amount of fun, and it’s one of the best ways to get into fixed-wing FPV drones there is. Like all of Parrot’s drones, the Disco takes care of most of the hard parts of flying for you, and once you get the hang of the hand-launched takeoff, the drone is very hard to destroy, even if you land it badly over and over. And over. At $1,300, we thought it was a little expensive initially, but Parrot has now dropped the price to $1,000, which is much more reasonable, considering that it comes with Parrot’s fancy Skycontroller 2, along with a headset that will turn your phone into a VR display. We also still like Parrot’s other (cheaper) drones, including the $300 AR Drone 2.0 and the $500 Bebop 2.
Now that someone has done this, it seems so obvious: A modular kit that you can use to make drones out of Legos. Endless potential for customization combined with a structure that can be easily destroyed and rebuilt just as easily. We haven’t tried one of these out for ourselves, so we’re not sure how durable and easy to use it is in practice, but we definitely like the idea. The basic kit is $190, but we prefer having a physical controller as opposed to an app.
Better Bluetooth and an improved app help keep Sphero’s already excellent robotic ball up to date. Sphero’s robots are waterproof and shockproof, since everything fragile is sealed up inside of a clear plastic shell. It’s a fun toy, but the latest SPRK+ model is intended to be educational as well, with lots of STEM-focused programming activities that you can access through the app.
Ghost Robotics’ Minitaur
Photo: Ghost Robotics
Finally, if you’re willing to splurge this year, there’s no better way to spend ten grand than on Ghost Robotics’ Minitaur direct-drive quadruped robot. What can it do? The real question is, what can’t it do: It can walk, run, jump, bounce up and down, do flips and rolls, and even open doors. You’ll get a hand-built, fully-assembled Minitaur, a remote control, and the satisfaction of being one of the first on your block to have a four-legged pet robot.
For more tech gift ideas, check out also IEEE Spectrum’s annual Gift Guide.
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.