Welcome to the seventh edition of IEEE Spectrum’s Robot Gift Guide! Our apologies for being a bit late with our list this year (too many projects and trips!), but we hope it’ll help you find the best giftable robots for your family, friends, and other special people in your life, including yourself, of course. As in previous years, we tried to include a wide variety of robot types and prices, focusing mostly on products released this year.
If you need even more robot gift ideas, take a look at our past guides: 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, and 2012. Some of those robots are still great choices and are probably way cheaper now than when we first posted about them. And a reminder: 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 yikes, robots are pricey, we know).
If you have suggestions that you’d like to share, post a comment to help the rest of us find the perfect robot gift.
Robot vacuums don’t get much better than this. Featuring persistent intelligent maps that let you define specific cleaning zones, top-notch cleaning performance on both carpet and hardwood, and the kind of rugged reliability that iRobot is famous for, the Roomba i7+ is just about everything you could ever want in a floor-cleaning robot. And on top of all that, it has a magical dock that will suck the dirt right out of the robot so you don’t even have to worry about emptying it. Brilliant. Expensive, but brilliant.
Last year, South Korean robot maker ROBOTISintroduced the TurtleBot3, designed to help people get started with ROS and, in particular, SLAM and autonomous navigation. Now ROBOTIS is announcing OpenManipulator, a 5-degrees-of-freedom arm powered by Dynamixel XM430 servos that you can attach to a Turtlebot3 Waffle. It’s not cheap, and the learning curve can be daunting for beginners, but OpenManipulator is a versatile platform for anyone interested in exploring motion planning, grasping, kinematics, and mobile manipulation.
Vector is a little robot companion and helper for people at home. It understands voice commands and can answer questions and play games with you. Robot maker Anki calls it “the good robot,” and Vector certainly has some character to it. But as with other social robots—like the now-gone Jibo and Kuri—will people think it’s worth the money? We think Anki is doing several things right: It’s relying on mass production to bring prices down; it’s using advanced AI capabilities and opening them up to developers (the company’s previous robot, Cozmo, has an SDK, and we’re hoping Vector will get one too); and finally, it’s constantly pushing updates to make the robots more useful. For example, Vector will be able to connect to Amazon’s Alexa, so you can play music, shop, or control your IoT home. So Vector is not everything you’ve ever wanted of a robot sidekick, but it’s a beginning.
Jimu is a robotic building block system designed to get kids ages 8+ excited about coding and STEM. It was created by UBTECH Robotics, a fast-growing Chinese robotics company developing robot toys, humanoids, and service robots. The Jimu AstroBot Cosmos kit includes 387 snap-together parts, an infrared sensor, two LED lights, five servo motors, and a Bluetooth speaker. Using an app, you can see step-by-step 3D instructions for building three different robots, or you can assemble your own creation. You can program the robot by recording a series of motions, or by using the visual drag-and-drop programming language Blockly. (Other Jimu kits include UnicornBot, a programmable unicorn that can move around, nod its head, and light up its horn.)
Last year Sony announced that it was reviving its iconic robotic pet Aibo. The new Aibo, packed with more advanced mechatronics and AI, is smarter and cuter than ever. It can recognize its owner’s face, detect smiles and words of praise, and learn new tricks over time. This is the sixth generation of Sony’s robot dog. The biggest difference from previous models is a new cloud-based AI engine, which relies on a powerful on-board computer and advanced image sensors. And one thing that hasn’t changed: the hefty price tag. The “limited first litter edition” bundle includes the canine robot plus a pink ball, bone, paw pads, charging station, and three years of AI cloud service.
One reason to splurge on Neato’s Botvac D7 high-end robot vacuum is the persistent map that allows you to tell the vacuum exactly where you want it to clean. Neato’s app makes this easy, and they’re releasing feature-packed updates on an aggressive schedule: just this week, they announced a “Zone Cleaning” update that lets you define rooms. Now, you can tell the robot “go clean the kitchen” and it’ll do exactly that.
Neato Robotics | Amazon
Sphero is a solid compromise between a robotic toy and an educational robot. It’s rugged and fun and probably rolls faster than you expect, and you can get accessories for it like ramps and even rubber covers that let it move around a little bit in water. The new Bolt version, featuring a transparent shell, includes a programmable LED array inside the robot, and additional sensors that enable robot-to-robot communication. Through Sphero’s apps, beginners can draw paths for the robot to follow, play games, and then transition to more advanced block programming and text programming.
French electronics maker Parrot was into the consumer drone space before anyone else, and even though DJI Mavic and Phantom drones have really taken off over the last few years (so to speak), we were very impressed by the creative thoughtfulness that Parrot put into their Anafi drone. With a compact and portable design and a number of nice touches like USB-C charging, Anafi is effortless to travel with. The camera is outstanding, flight performance is solid, and the drone is much quieter than others. You don’t get any obstacle avoidance, but in our experience, if that’s something your drone needs, you should just practice flying it more.
Wonder Workshop | Amazon
Cubelets are magnetic blocks that you can snap together to make an endless variety of robots with no programming and no wires. Created by Modular Robotics, Cubelets can drive around on a tabletop, respond to light, sound, and temperature, and when you put a bunch of them together, they can have surprisingly lifelike behavior. They are ideal for beginners (kids ages 6+), because it’s easy to program simple robots by snapping Cubelets together and observing their behavior. More advanced users can use Blockly or C. The Cubelets Discovery Kit includes five blocks, two Lego brick adapters, and a Bluetooth module, which pairs robot creations with mobile devices.
Modular Robotics | Amazon
Nao has been one of the most popular research humanoid robots for a solid decade now, and although it hasn’t changed much in its basic design, it has received a few hardware updates over time to keep it performing well. The latest version is called Nao v6, and it was released by SoftBank Robotics earlier this year. Nao v6 features new cameras, better audio, more rugged motors, and Bluetooth along with improved Wi-Fi.
SoftBank Robotics | RobotLab
For absolute robotics beginners, especially young children, the Ozobot Evo is a fun, easy, and borderline affordable way of getting started. You don’t need to know how to code at all: The robot can be programmed by drawing colored lines on a piece of paper, which it’ll detect as it drives over them, changing its behavior. When you’re ready to get it to do more, you can move on to a visual programming language based on Blockly.
Finch is a little starter robot originally developed by Carnegie Mellon University. It’s got accelerometers, light, temperature, and obstacle sensors, it can draw things with a pen, and it may be the lowest cost robot we’ve ever seen with a full-color beak LED. The best part about Finch is that you can start programming with simple visual languages by like Snap or Scratch, and then move on to Python, Java, and C. Plus, the robot comes with an entire curriculum that you can use, and you don’t even have to be in school to do it.
Misty II is one of the most advanced personal robots that you can order right now. It’s an ideal platform for development, with built-in functionality for things like mapping, dynamic navigation, image recognition, and more. You can access all of that tech and incorporate it into your own projects without having to start from scratch, making it that much easier to bring your robotics dreams to life. Note that Misty II won’t ship until next April at the earliest.
Boston Dynamics announced this year that it plans to manufacture large quantities of its SpotMini quadruped, going from a hundred units this year to a thousand next year. The company wants to offer SpotMini as a platform for robot applications—“the Android of robots,” as Boston Dynamics CEO Marc Raibert put it, making a reference to the Android mobile operating system. He envisions third-party companies developing accessories and payloads that you can add to SpotMini to enhance its capabilities for specialized applications in security, inspection, delivery, and so forth. The robot won’t be available until the latter half of next year and we don’t know how much it will cost, but hey, if you want one, better start saving now.
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.