12 Oct 2015

DIY robot kits

One of the best ways to learn about robotics is to build your own robot. Bill Condie surveys the field.

Credit: Jeffery Phillips

Robotics is complex and multi-disciplinary, combining engineering, construction, electronics and computer programming. It can be daunting to know where to start, but one of the best ways to learn about robotics is to be hands-on and build your own robot – and the easiest way to do that is with a kit. There are many on the market, from the sleek Lego range to the small but perfectly formed BOE-Bot. The selection listed here are all suitable for beginners but versatile enough to allow those with more experience to adapt and expand the robots’ capabilities. 

1. SumoBot

From Parallax, the SumoBot is designed to compete in the Sumo pits – one of the most popular robot trials where one robot tries to knock the other out of the ring sumo wrestling style. The SumoBot kit is one of the easiest and quickest ways to get into the game. The robot has a surface-mounted BASIC Stamp® 2 ‘brain’, an array of infrared sensors as well as opponent-seeking navigation that employs programmed artificial intelligence.

2. iRobot Create 2

The Create series was introduced in 2007 based on iRobot’s Roomba vacuum cleaning platform. By connecting your laptop or adding an onboard microcontroller you can program the robot with new behaviours, sounds and movements. You can also equip your robot with extra sensors, cameras and grippers.

3. Lynxmotion robotic arm

An affordable robotic series that comes in different specs for its hardware, control electronics and software. All arms have a rotating base, a shoulder joint that allows up-down movement in a single plane and elbow and wrist joints that add up to four DOF (degrees of freedom, a measure of 3D movement). Optional rotating joints add up to a total of six DOF. 

4. Ev3rstorm

Lego’s signature humanoid robot is a cool, if pricey option. It uses Lego’s Mindstorms software, which can be downloaded from Lego’s website. Being made of Lego blocks the robot can be assembled in five possible configurations, including a snake-bot, a forklift-like gripping robot and a ball-flinging robot. The EV3 microcontroller brick either uses a supplied program or allows you to follow the steps to create your own.

5. Pi-Bot

The Pi-Bot is an affordable, complete robot kit for building and programming. Controlled using the standardised Arduino C programming language, the robot can be used by students or engineers wanting to learn the hardware and software of robotics. Developers of the kit are working on new sensors and motors to provide more capabilities. The Pi-Bot gets its name from its unique chassis shape when viewed from above – the letter pi. 

6. BOE-Bot

Short for Board of Education robot, BOE-Bot is widely used in robotics classes. It has a main circuit board, a plug-in BASIC Stamp microcontroller, two motors to drive the wheels, and an aluminium chassis the parts bolt on to. Students can use Erector set parts, Lego blocks and additional motors to build custom projects. It runs on four AA batteries and can be adjusted to walk on six legs, sense objects or pick up things with optional attachments from manufacturer Parallax.

Bill Condie is Spectrum editor of Cosmos and edits the Cosmos news blog.