Any time of year is the perfect time to buy a robot for yourself or someone who needs more robots in their life, but this particular time of year is even more perfect than most: The holidays are approaching, all kinds of things are on sale, and nobody will ask questions if a whole bunch of new robots suddenly show up in your house. To help you decide which robots to buy for yourself and which to buy for yourself and for other people, we’ve put together a brand-new edition of our annual Robot Gift Guide. It’s stuffed with giftable robots ranging from affordable to ridiculous, and we promise that if you don’t find something you like, we’ll feel bad about it and be sad.
Also, don’t forget that we’ve got robot gift guides going back like five years (here: 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012), and since we try to mix them up every year, they’re great places for even more ideas for robots that are probably way cheaper now than when we first posted about them. And remember: 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).
And if you have some good robot gift ideas that you’d like to share, post a comment to help the rest of us find something perfect.
With Cozmo, Anki promised both personality and brains, and somehow managed to deliver on both. We were initially skeptical that it would hold our attention for more than a few minutes, but we’ve been impressed, especially as Anki continues to add more education-focused features to the little bot. While it’s not the cheapest robot toy on this list, it’s a solid combination of entertainment, learning, and the potential for growth if you’re interested in programming. And even if you’re not, it’s a lot of fun.
When Lego debuted the Mindstorms robotics kit in 1998, it was programmed using a simple graphical programming interface designed for children. But Mindstorms quickly found a broad audience among older enthusiasts and researchers, and the capability—and complexity—of the line increased over the years. The new $160 Lego Boost kit is something of a return to basics. Intended for children aged 7 to 12, Boost creations are controlled directly from a drag-and-drop-style programming app running on a tablet.
HEXA is a six-legged programmable robot developed by Vincross, a robotics company based in Beijing, China. It’s beautifully designed, with a glossy white carapace, matte black articulated legs, and dark purple wires. The robot is powered by a dual-core ARM Cortex-A9, and its sensor suite includes an HD camera, infrared sensor, IMU, and encoders. HEXA runs a Linux-based operating system called MIND, and programming the robot is made easier with an open-source SDK based on the Go language (the company is also working on an advanced simulator). These tools let users create and modify applications to explore new behaviors for the insectoid robot.
In terms of sheer bang for your buck, Dash Robotics’ Kamigami is a fantastic choice for a robotic gift. It’s impossibly cheap yet brings lots of skittery, high-speed fun, and we also like it because of its high-quality robotics research heritage. You assemble it yourself from flat sheets, add the included electronics, and control it from your phone. And with Dash Robotics’ recent acquisition of Bots Alive, we’re expecting more great things in the near future.
Anki Overdrive: Fast & Furious Edition
Since Anki unveiled its robotic battle-racing game Overdrive nearly five years ago (at Apple’s WWDC, no less), the company has been updating the product’s AI engine to make gameplay faster and more sophisticated. The latest version of Overdrive is a special edition based on the Fast & Furious franchise. Players use their phones to control the little cars, including Dom’s Ice Charger and Hobbs’s MXT, and can battle and race each other or the game’s AI.
The ROSbot is a great platform for learning ROS, the Robot Operating System. It’s equipped with an ARM-based CORE2-ROS compute board developed by Husarion, a robotics company founded by graduates of AGH University of Science and Technology in Cracow, Poland. Husarion has done two successful crowdfunding campaigns aimed at developing powerful, versatile controllers for robotics. Perhaps more impressive, it has also developed a cloud platform that lets you create and update your robot’s applications from an intuitive Web-based interface. You can use the CORE2-ROS ($115) to build your own robot, or if you want one already assembled, Husarion’s ROSbot is certainly pricey but includes some serious hardware: ASUS Tinker Board, four dc motors with encoders, RPLIDAR A2 360-degree laser range finder, IMU, camera, four distance sensors, metal chassis, and battery pack.
Parrot Mambo FPV
Parrot makes some very sophisticated, very expensive drones. Parrot also makes some very affordable drones. The Mambo FPV sits pleasingly in the middle—it’s more expensive than some microdrones, but it comes with a real controller, an onboard streaming camera, and a headset for your phone that gives you an immersive(ish) nearly real-time first person view. Flying an FPV drone is a totally different experience from piloting a drone remotely, and the Mambo FPV is one of the cheapest and most forgiving ways of giving it a try.
It’s been an easy choice to include Sphero in our past gift guides, and it’s even easier to include the new Sphero Mini. Half the price of its big brother, and half the size as well (about as big as a ping pong ball), you still get just about as much of the programmability but in a very small and very affordable form factor. The bigger Sphero is faster, more durable, and has longer range, so that’s still a worthwhile option if you need a little more oomph and have a slightly bigger budget.
After a long, long, loooooong wait, Jibo is finally here. Developed by MIT social robotics pioneer Cynthia Breazeal and her team at Jibo Inc., this tabletop one-eyed robot is designed as a companion and helper to families. Jibo’s face and speech recognition are quite good, and you can ask the robot to check the weather, read the news, snap pictures, tell you a joke, and set alarms, among other things. Kids, in particular, seem to enjoy interacting with it. The company is constantly updating Jibo’s skills to make it more useful, but many people will wonder how it compares to an Amazon Echo or Google Home. Jibo is probably not as capable, and it costs much more. The little robot, however, is certainly more charismatic and funnier than the other gadgets. And it can dance.
Created by robotics startup Mayfield Robotics, Kuri is part of the first generation of social home robots, and one of the things that makes it different from robots like Jibo is that it’s mobile: While Jibo sits on your counter, Kuri follows you around. It’s still too early to tell how successful these robots will be, but you can think of Kuri as an investment in the future of useful robotic companions. If you preorder Kuri now, it won’t ship until next spring at the earliest, which is obviously too late for the holidays. However, you will get a plush Kuri toy and an art book this December to help tide you over.
TurtleBot 3 Burger
South Korean robot maker Robotis announced two new TurtleBot 3 models earlier this year. The more affordable version, the TurtleBot 3 Burger, is powered by a Raspberry Pi 3 Model B and two Dynamixel servos to drive the wheels. It runs Ubuntu 16.04.2 LTS and ROS Kinetic, and comes with a 360-degree planar lidar, allowing it to do SLAM and autonomous navigation out of the box. It offers a versatile robot platform for users who want to learn ROS and are familiar with Linux and the basics of coding, networking, and robotics.
Robot Vacuums: Roomba 980 and Botvac D7
While neither iRobot or Neato have any brand-new robot vacuums up for grabs this season, there are plenty of solid options to choose from if you (or someone you like very, very much) wants to adopt a new robot helper. The top-of-the-line robots from both companies (the Roomba 980 and Botvac D7 Connected) feature excellent cleaning performance, Wi-Fi connectivity, and the ability to generate maps of your home that will result in some exciting new features in the not-too-distant future. If you just want something that’ll reliably keep your floors cleaner than they would be otherwise, we have no trouble recommending the (much cheaper) Roomba 690 ($375) or Neato Botvac D3 ($400).
If you have every other robot on this list, you’ll definitely be needing a Cassie. Our favorite robot ostrich still has a ways to go before she’ll be scampering up your front steps to deliver a package, but even without much in the way of training, she’s nimble enough over terrain that other bipedal robots would find challenging. Available in a variety of bright colors and made in Oregon, Cassie just needs a pair of googly eyes to be your new best friend. (Googly eyes sold separately.)
Price upon request
For more tech gift ideas, check out also 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.
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.