Hack These Cool Off-the-Shelf Toys into Robots

Arduino Raspberry Pi Robotics
Hack These Cool Off-the-Shelf Toys into Robots

DJ Sures of EZ-Robot founded a whole company the idea of hacking toys into robots.
DJ Sures created the EZ-Robot controller to make hacking toys into robots easier.
Watch for our robot themed posts during May in honor of Make: Volume 45: Robots and don’t forget to subscribe to Make: magazine.

There’s a long tradition of hacking toys to make robots. Why settle for what some manufacturer designed? Add a microcontroller to an R/C car and you have an instant self stopping robot car. Stick some RFID electronics in a teddy bear and suddenly it can respond to objects around it. Hacking is all about taking something and making it do what the designer never intended.

The Toys

Here’s a collection of toys ripe for hacking. I limited the list to recently released or at least currently available toys. Try the ideas here or take them further with your own. What’s your next robot hack going to be? Tell us about your favorite toy hack in the comments!

Combat Creatures Attacknid

Jaimie's custom paint job in yellow, and an unpainted Spider Tank (Photo credit: Jaimie Mantzel)
Jaimie’s custom paint job in yellow, and an unpainted Spider Tank.
(Photo credit: Jaimie Mantzel)

The Attacknid six-legged remote control “combat creature,” invented by Jaimie Mantzel, is one of the coolest and most hackable toys around. It’s been on the market for a while, and there have been quite a few hacks posted.

You can add a camera and use the existing remote to make a motion-sickness-inducing telerobot. Or add a sonar or other range sensor along with motor drivers and a microcontroller to set the Attacknid free to roam and terrify the house pets autonomously.

Attacknid with Death Ray Laser by StyroPyro
Attacknid with Death Ray Laser by StyroPyro.

YouTuber and laser enthusiast Drake Anthony (aka StyroPyro) memorably added a laser “death ray” capable of popping balloons to his Attacknid.

Remote control drone enthusiast Les O’Dell integrated a quadcopter onto the Attacknid. He does manage to lift off, though I don’t think sustained flight is really practical. He gets points for awesomeness, though.

Baymax from Big Hero 6

Baymax Armor-Up toy: Ripe for hacking
Baymax Armor-Up toy: Ripe for hacking.

Right on top of my most wanted list was a hack of a Baymax toy from the movie Big Hero 6. Lots of Makers and robot enthusiasts really loved this movie, so I figured it would be easy to find someone who had hacked one, right? Well, no.

Search though I did, I could not find one decent Baymax hack.

Undeterred, I started looking at different Baymax toys to try to find the most hackable one. I settled on the Baymax “Armor-Up” action figure, which comes as Baymax in his healthcare-mode white, and 20 beautiful red and purple armor pieces. The armor snaps in place to convert Baymax to his big, bad, crime-fighting mode. Essentially, you get a whole extra Baymax worth of snap-on armor, even a new head with the face inside.

With a little imagination and some hot glue, it is easy to see how servos could be fit inside to actuate the armor. Without the white Baymax inside, the armor shell is capacious. The pictures below give an idea of how the servos might fit to control the head, arms, and legs. I haven’t tried it yet, but I plan to. However, I’d be happy to see someone beat me to it. I just want to see this hack done well!

Despicable Me Minions

Stuart the Minion, under a hack.
Stuart the Minion, upgraded

I loved the Despicable Me movies, and I just can’t wait until the Minions prequel comes out this July.

Three different Minions — Stuart, Dave, and Tim — are available as talking toys. When you press the button beneath their overall chest pocket, they turn on and make sounds or speak in their gibberish “Minionese.”

The best thing about them is that you can trigger these sounds by moving their heads back and forth or from left to right. The soft skin, which feels like silicon rubber, contorts with the motion to change their facial expressions. The eyes (or eye, in Stuart’s case) move left and right and the eyelids blink.

There was not enough room inside Stuart to add the servos to the original mechanism. So I yanked most of it out and stuffed two standard servos inside the body and two mini servos in the head. The body servos control the forward and back, and left and right motions. The mini servos in the head control the eye and eyelid movement. An Arduino Nano controls everything.

I added two more mini servos to the body, and Stuart’s previously poseable arms could now move up and down under my control. I re-used the original sound board, triggering a random sound each time Stuart moves. I’d like to add more behaviors, integrate the electronics better, and replace the original sound board with one that lets me control which sound is made. Still, I’m very happy with this hack. You can learn more about it here.

WowWee MiP

Atom and MiP at RobotGrrl's Robot Party
Atom and MiP at RobotGrrl’s Robot Party.

A robotic engineer, Atom Machinerule often works with robots that cost thousands of dollars like Nao, DARwin-OP, and Qbo. Atom’s impressive hack of the MiP two-wheel balancing robot toy shows that expanding on this platform is very achievable … and affordable.

Atom chose to integrate a Raspberry Pi A+ for its small footprint, as well as a Raspberry Pi camera module. The Pi’s serial port communicates using a Python script to control MiP via its factory JST connector. You have to disassemble the robot to reach the factory connector.

Atom referenced WowWee’s documentation, available on their GitHub, to understand MiP’s BLE communication protocol. More Python code and OpenCV computer vision programming libraries allow Atom’s hacked MiP to track and follow a colored ball as well as human faces.

A separate mobile telepresence program uses a Python script to grab video from the Raspberry Pi camera in a motion JPEG compressed stream. The images are hosted to a web page using another Python module. The web page has integrated buttons to drive the robot.

Atom is working on documenting the installation and use of the programs. We’ll update this page when the documentation becomes available. You can also check out SparkFun’s products and tutorial on hacking the MiP with their MiP Proto-Back PCB.

SparkFun has tutorials on hacking MiP
SparkFun has tutorials on hacking MiP.

Adorable Mention: The Offbits

The Offbits are robot action figures made with upcycled parts.
The Offbits: Robot creatures made with upcycled parts.

This last entry may not be what most would consider a hack, but it’s so adorable I just had to include it.

The Offbits are kits made from bolts, springs, and fasteners, machined and painted with instructions for assembly into little robot toys. There’s a cute back story about quirky robots that are exiled from their planet by a totalitarian regime for being different.

The Offbits let you expand on their base kits with upgrades or with standard hardware parts you can find anywhere. The concept is neat and promotes creative design.

A cool aspect of the project is the Offbits Creation Community, which lets users share pictures of their own customized Offbits. At the time of this writing, the project’s Kickstarter is very close to their goal with 13 days to go.

Offbits created at Maker Faire Jerusalem
Offbits created at Maker Faire Jerusalem.

1 thought on “Hack These Cool Off-the-Shelf Toys into Robots

  1. LeRoy Miller says:

    The original SpyGear Trakr was/is programmable out of the box – it was made to be hackable, programmable, and expandable (Even has GPIO ports marked). It has a SD card reader, USB host, and USB program port, camera. Unfortunately I’ve been unable to find the compiler for a while now. The Trakr as far as I remember was made in 2011.
    The Roboni-i 2 wheeled vechial also should be on the list of hackable toys – unlike the Trakr, the software for it can still be found the web. It’s an interesting toy has lots of IR sensors, RF-ID reader, and the ability to be programmed using a special version of the Arduino IDE. The company designed this with hackers in mind, using common screws that just about everyone can take out, and easy to remove plastics, seems like it’s well documented, as well. Not sure when this was made, I do know I’ve had mine for a couple of years now, so at least 2013.

    I think at very least these should have honourable mentions on the list.

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Andrew Terranova is an electrical engineer, writer and author of How Things Are Made: From Automobiles to Zippers. Andrew is also an electronics and robotics enthusiast and has created and curated robotics exhibits for the Children's Museum of Somerset County, NJ and taught robotics classes for the Kaleidoscope Enrichment in Blairstown, NJ and for a public primary school. Andrew is always looking for ways to engage makers and educators.

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