Knowing how to program is an increasingly important skill in the world we are making. Thankfully, it’s never been easier to learn. Block-based languages like Scratch make it simple to start acquiring the base concepts of creating software. Python, a language I personally believe should be required for graduation from high school, is now ubiquitous across almost any platform you would want to use it on. And if Arduino has taught us anything, it’s that writing traditional software can be fun — but writing it to interact with the physical world is even better. In come the robots!

While Lego Mindstorms has been the undisputed champion of educational robot platforms for years, a new crop of bots are popping up that may not be as modular, but offer a lot at a fraction of the cost. I had a chance to get my hands on three of them to take their programming interfaces for a spin.

Photography by Matt Stultz

Ozobot Evo. Photography by Matt Stultz

The Ozobot Evo packs a lot into a ping-pong ball-sized package. Evo has six programmable LEDs and proximity sensors, along with a bottom sensor for line following and color detection. The real fun comes with the included color markers for building your own mazes. The OzoBlockly programming interface allows you to decide how Evo interacts with the maze you’ve created, or any other challenges you want to put it through. The block programming language is a great place to get started, but hopefully the Ozo team will open up more advanced tools in the future.

ankicozmo-5

Anki Cozmo

The big robot buzz has been coming around the release of the Anki Cozmo. Cozmo is a little bot with a ton of personality. Instantly reminiscent of Disney’s Wall-E, Cozmo has an LCD that makes emotive facial expressions, helping to draw you in (the built-in camera even does facial recognition — it recognizes and speaks to its user). Cozmo is loaded with sensors to discover his world, and has a forklift-like arm for interacting with it. Cozmo’s API is Python-based and extensive. Still in beta, this promises to give you incredible control over Cozmo. While Python is a more advanced language, it’s still very accessible to new coders and learning it will pay dividends.

Mime Microbot

Mime Microbot

My favorite is probably the least complex of the bunch, the Mime Mirobot. This flat-pack, laser-cut kit can be assembled without tools in a few minutes. The base function of the Mirobot is a drawbot — place a pen in its actuator and give it commands to make it draw. The power, however, comes in its array of programming options. Users can get started by programming it in multiple block languages including Scratch, but can later move on to more complicated and robust languages like Python and JavaScript. For those of us that grew up learning Logo as our first experience with programming, the Mirobot quickly becomes a real-world turtle. It works well; within a few minutes of opening their Python interface I was drawing fractals.