Holiday Gift Guide: Robots!

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Holiday Gift Guide: Robots!

In the last few years, the world of hobby robotics has exploded. Driven by the plummeting prices and ubiquity of microcontrollers, servomotors, and other electronic and mechanical components, the growth in personal fabrication technologies, and the success of such commercial toy, hobby, and domestic robots as Lego Mindstorms, the Robosapien line, Japanese mini humanoids, and iRobot’s cleaning machines, robots are finally becoming rather commonplace (if still only in niche domains). And, of course, the robot growth being seeded by these new technologies is watered by the Big Muddy of the Internet, with its rapid information and idea exchange. The next generation of engineers and industrial designers who’ll build tomorrow’s robots are growing up with Vex kits and Arduino microcontrollers in their hands today.

For our MAKE Robot Gift Guide, we’ve put together a sampling of robot-related offerings from the Maker Shed, as well as some other robots we fancy. If you give or get any of these bots for the holidays, or especially if you or your recipients, hack them, we’d love to hear about it.

Fully-Assembled Robots

I was given one of these last holiday season to review. At the time, I was pretty impressed that TOMY was able to offer such a sophisticated mini-humanoid for the price (which was then around $250 street). Now, sadly, after a year, TOMY has decided to discontinue the product. But that means we can offer them in the Maker Shed for $106!. That’s a very attractive price for a very hackable little robot, making it the perfect gift for any techno-tinkerer on your list. This 6 1/2″-tall humanoid uses 17 servomotors to somersault, stand on one leg, do push-ups, perform martial arts. It has 180 pre-programmed movements, responds to verbal commands, and performs up to 240 movements in sequence, allowing you to design countless routines, such as programming the device to say “hello,” introduce himself, play an air guitar, bow to his audience, and say “good night.” Using the included action chart as a guide, you simply enter the alphanumeric codes into the remote control and i-SOBOT reacts in earnest with acrobatics, verbal phrases, and greetings, or you can control his movements manually using the dual joysticks and trigger buttons on the remote. In voice recognition mode, the robot moves in response to ten verbal prompts, such as “Go forward” or “Back up,” and acknowledges questions like “How are you?” with appropriate retorts. Ages 10+.

$105.95. has some links to i-SOBOT hacking-related resources here.


Rovio Mobile Webcam

We’ve been fans of WowWee and their growing line of robots since the first Robosapien. Along with iRobot, WowWee has been pioneers in making robot technology commercially viable. To date, most of WowWee’s product line has been robotic toys. So we were excited to see them offering a more practical robotic system — Rovio, a Wifi-enabled mobile webcam you can control from any Web-enabled device over the internet. One of the first commercially-viable robot applications iRobot looked into was basically the same sort of webcam on a robot which would allow remote tele-presence. So, WowWee comes along with a really killer-looking three- (omni)wheeled, semi-autonomous bot you can control over the Web for under $300. It’s a start, but Rovio is definitely still in beta. We’ve only had a day to mess with ours, but we’ve already encountered many of the problems early users have cited: poor camera performance, especially in middle-to-low lighting, poor audio on the mic, docking station problems, unreliable waypoint navigation, and other annoyances. Also, in an ironic turn-about, the Windows network set-up is pretty much plug ‘n play, while the Mac set-up is a little gnarlier. So, we can’t recommend Rovio if you’re looking for a home/office mobile sentry (what the device is basically marketed as), but it has all sorts of great hacks potential and there’s already an enthusiastic hacking community that’s started figuring out how to extend capabilities, control it with the Wiimote, and other promising improvements. And we have to mention the design — it’s seriously cool and the glowing blue LED running lights make it look like something, well from that 21st century that hasn’t actually happened yet. In the hands of a robot hacker, this is a really fun system with lots of potential. For everyone else, wait for the next version when WowWee will hopefully fix some of the significant problems.
Price: $299.99


Wrex the Dawg
Meet Wrex, the first commercial “junkbot,” or so he’s been made to look. A dog that only Dr. Frankenstein could love, Wrex appears to have been cobbled together from discarded electronic and mechanical parts. He’s a literal junkyard dog. His personality is also stitched together. He has various moods and needs, he can become incorrigible, and he will even go haywire and break down on occasion. His rolling jackpots eyes spin around and have symbols on them that display his moods and desires. He’s a cross between Astro from The Jetsons, Scooby Doo, and codeHound (codeHound, you say? It’s an early Net-culture thing. I’m old). Like a lot of these highly motorized toys, this thing eats batteries like they were Scooby snacks. The bot requires four Cs and two AAs, the remote takes three AAAs. And be careful getting Wrex out of the big, impressive box he comes in. It’s a major undertaking, and cheap, easily-stripped screws are involved. All-in-all, this is an adorable, slightly screw-loose robo-pet that kids will definitely love (and your inebriated adult friends at holiday parties). I can’t wait to see how he might get hacked.
Price: $119.99

BEAM-ish Bots


Maker Bundle #1

The Maker Shed has put together the first in a series of parts collections, called Maker Bundles. Maker Bundle #1 combines all of the electronic components to make four of the beginner-to-intermediate robot projects we’ve covered in MAKE magazine. For $20 off the cost of buying the parts separately, you get all of the components you need to make the iconic Mousey the Junkbot, two fundamental BEAMbots (a Trimet solar “top” and a SolarRoller), and Jerome Demers’s awesome BeetleBot, a robot that uses only switches to create obstacle-avoiding behavior. My article on how to build Mousey can be found in MAKE, Volume 02. I covered the basics of BEAM and how to build the Trimet and SolaRoller in MAKE Volume 06. Jerome’s BeetleBot article can be found in MAKE, Volume 12. You can also get my three project articles in The Best of MAKE collection.
Price: $55.00


HexPummer Kit (Pummer only)
Lantern Kit (Lantern kit only)
One of the new kit releases I got a big kick out of at Maker Faire Austin was the HexPummer Lantern from our compadres at Solarbotics. This is an add-on to their popular HexPummer, a kit version of a cool BEAM circuit that creates throbbing LED light that “PUMMs” when darkness falls and the circuit slowly dumps the power from the solar cell and rechargeable batteries that have been busy soaking up and storing the day’s sunlight. Put this inside of a handsome little laser-cut Japanese lantern with geeky silhouettes (or seasonal ones) and you have the HexPummer Lantern. This is a great entry-level kit, something that the builder will have fun showing off when s/he’s done making it.

Solarbotics even made special MAKE and Maker Faire Austin Lantern kits. These kits, and the HexPummers, are both available in the Maker Shed.
Price: $27.50 (Pummer)
Price: $7.50 (Lantern kit)

Make Pt0169

Herbie the Mousebot
Herbie the Mousebot is a quick, easy-to-build, light-chasing robot kit, perfect for beginners. Herbie is such an elegant, clever design using very few parts, it’s been featured in as a construction project in Junkbot, Bugbots, and Bots on Wheels, Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Robots and MAKE magazine. Enhanced with functional whisker and tail sensors, it doesn’t get stuck in corners while it scurries around. A very cool 9-volt battery-powered (not included) robot that loves to chase flashlight beams.
Price: $39.95

The Best of MAKE collects the first ten issues of MAKE magazine. It includes an introduction to BEAM robotics and seven robot projects, including our mascot-bot, Mousey the Junkbot — Herbie’s trashier cousin who became something of a tragic TV star after his desk-leaping appearance on The Colbert Report) — a solaroller and symet, Roomba hacking, and more. 350 pages reprinting over 75 projects from our first 2-1/2 years. Price: $22.75

Make Pt0168
SolarSpeeder 2 kit
The SolarSpeeder kit has a soft spot in my heart ’cause it’s the first BEAMbot from Solarbotics that I built. It’s a really sweet little kit that’s a great introduction to both BEAM robotic principles and basic electronics and soldering. It uses a Miller Solar Engine, a 1381C voltage trigger, and a .33F Gold capacitor to deliver a healthy serving of juice to the pager motor that powers this little dragster. The result is a very quick Solaroller that can cover three meters (10 feet) in under 40 seconds in direct sunlight. Fun to build and a great project for kids (with supervision) and beginners!
Price: $25.00

Arduino- and Atmel-powered Robots

Pololu 3pi Robot The 3pi robot was one of my favorite things we rolled out at the Maker Shed at this year’s Maker Faire Austin. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on one. For $100, you get a small but mighty mobile robot platform driven by two micro DC gearmotors, with five reflectance sensors, an 8×2 character LCD display, a buzzer, and three push buttons, all connected to a C-programmable ATmega168 microcontroller. You can compile your programs in both the WinAVR/AVR Studio environment and the Arduino environment. You need an external AVR ISP programmer such as the Pololu Orangutan USB programmer to get programs from your PC, Mac or Linux machine to the 3pi. The programmer is sold separately (see below). Pololu also sells two expansion PCBs that sit on top of the 3pi base for adding additional sensors and other hardware. The 3pi is capable of speeds exceeding three feet per second. The reflectance sensors in the front can be used to make the 3pi a line-follower. We set up a course made from black electrical tape on a table at the Faire and the 3pi accurately raced around it at top speeds. Very fun. This would be an ambitious bot for a beginner (the programming part, anyway) and a perfect second robot for someone looking to move up from non-programmable, BEAM-type bots to an Arduino-friendly fully-programmable robot dev platform. This is really an impressive little bot for the money. Fully assembled.

Orangutan USB Programmer
This compact programmer can program the 3pi robot through a USB connection. The on-board USB-to-serial adapter allows the unit to look like a serial AVRISP programmer to your programming software. The serial port TX and RX lines are connected to separate pads so that the programmer can also be used as a USB-to-serial adapter. A USB A to Mini-B cable is required but not included. No assembly required.
Price: $27.99

3pi Expansion Kit with Cutouts
This kit gives you everything you need to add a second level to your 3pi. The black PCB matches the color of the 3pi and has cutouts so you can still view the LCD display below and reach the power button, reset button, and programming header.
Price: $19.95

3pi Expansion Kit without Cutout
In this version, the LCD pins are brought up to the expansion board from the base via extended headers for your own custom use. This black printed circuit board matches the color of the 3pi and serves as a general-purpose prototyping board.
Price: $19.95

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Twitchie Robot Kit
Twitchie is Arduino powered and comes pre-programmed, making it an excellent kit for beginners in robotics. No programming required. You can download and modify the code if you want, and it’s pretty light on soldering, too. We recommend Twitchie for young makers (both boys & girls) interested in robotics or in bringing plush toys to life.
Price: $99.95

MAKE & CRAFT blogger Becky Stern is afraid of scorpions (she lives in Arizona). So she made her Twitchie into a scorpion, thinking that maybe a writhing, striking, but oh-so-adorable plushie, scorpion might help her overcome some of her fear. Watch the video for build details.

Blubber Bot Robotic Inflatable
Blubber Bots are do-it-yourself robotic inflatables that navigate a space autonomously. They are light-seeking helium-filled balloons that graze the landscape in search of light and cellphone signals. Designed into the inflatable form are a set of light sensors enabling them to seek out the brightest light source. They are also equipped with a phone flasher and can recognize cellphone activity. You can interact with a Blubber Bot by making a call and waving your phone near it. In response, it will go into a flocking dance or play you a special tune.
Price: $99.99

Mechanical Kits, Automata, and Robot Toys
Mechamo Centipede Kit 

Make yourself a remote controlled “Meka-Centipede” with 32 legs that undulate like waves as they move all together, The effect is awesome. No soldering required.
Price: $89.99

Mechamo Crab Kit
Give life to a remote controlled “Meka-Crab.” It moves in parallel without moving up and down and raises only the tips of its legs to go over obstacles, just like a real crab!
Price: $69.99

Mechamo Inchworm Kit

Inch by inch, bot by bot. Make a cool remote controlled “Meka-Inchworm” with this fun, no-soldering-required kit.
Price: $69.99

Karakuri Tea Serving Robot Kit
Karakuri dolls are said to be one of the original forms of the modern robot. The history of Karakuri (meaning “mechanism that drives a machine”) automatic dolls began in the early Edo period of Japan (1603-1867). This tea-serving doll is the most typical style and is produced according to the “Karakuri Zui,” the only existing Karakuri mechanical doll manual, written in 1796.
Price: $59.99

The Mechanical Motorized Kits series:

Automech Kit
Burn rubber! Familiarize yourself with the operation of transmissions steered through gears or pulleys. Easy to build, no glue or soldering required. Age 10+.
Price: $16.95

Tyrannomech Kit
Fear this predator! Familiarize yourself with the operation of transmissions steered through gears or pulleys. Easy to build, no glue or soldering required. Age 10+
Price: $16.95

Robomech Kit
Robot Attack! Familiarize yourself with the operation of transmissions steered through gears or pulleys. Easy to build, no glue or soldering required. Great gift idea! Age 10+.
Price: $16.95


Co-Robot Kit
This little robot is tough! Run by a single motor, he walks with a decidedly “angry” pace. If he falls over, he rights himself. An awesome design with an amazing gear mechanism, he Co-Robot will not quit! Over 50,000 sold in Japan and a hit at the International Robot Exhibition earlier this year. Instructions are in Japanese but features highly detailed assembly pictures, sorry no English translation at this time. Easy to build. Made of high impact plastic.
Price: $29.95

Co Robot


Hexbug Micro-Robotic Creatures
Innovation First, the folks who brought you the Vex Robotic Design System and Dean Kamen (or was it the other way around?) has created a line of little robo-critters called Hexbugs. Each bug has a different type of motility and “behavior.” The Original Hexbug has six active little legs and two touch-sensing antenna. It also reacts to sound. The Crab skitters sideways on six legs and reacts to light (light avoiding) and sound (will move out of the darkness when it hears a noise). The Inchworm is a micro-remote-controlled beasty that uses four legs and a lazy Susan turntable to move and change direction. The Hexbugs are cool-looking, colorful, and fun for kids to play with. They’re also cheap. The Original is only $10, the Crab is $15, and the Inchworm is $20. These would make great stocking stuffers.

Robot Parts

Make Pt0170

Solarengine kits

This parts bundle, featuring a micro-cassette mechanism and a solar cell, is a treasure-trove of BEAM-worthy components. Each “kit” contains two motors (a pancake motor and a worm-gear reduction motor), pulleys, belts, rollers, hardware and more. I used the pancake motor and solar cell from this bundle, the capstan roller, and some of the other bits to build the solaroller featured on the cover of MAKE, Volume 06! There are all sorts of nifty applications for converting solar energy into motion with this zippy kit! These kits use the Solarbotics cells which have the solarengine circuit printed right onto the cell (see below). Just solder on a few basic components and you’ve got a renewable power source in minutes!

Solarengine Kit
Easy-to-construct kit complete with a hackable cassette mechanism. The instructions detail several projects for powering with your solarengine. This is the rapid fire, SCC2433 Miller Solar Engine (MSE) version.
Price: $25.00

Solarengine Upgrade Kit
Want a way to get started in electronics, and turn junk into something cool and useful? Use the BEAM design philosophy of making it solar-powered for autonomy and long life! Uses the higher performance, SCC3733-MSE.
Price: $35.00

Here’s an example of a BEAM solaroller in action:

Solar Cells

Make Pt0171

Solarbotics Solarcell_A
These epoxy-encapsulated monocrystalline solar cells generate a nominal 4.5V/18mA (sunlight) from a 24x33mm package. And they have an integrated solarengine circuit board etched right onto them. Just solder on a couple of caps, a diode, a transistor, and a voltage trigger and you’re good to go! Price: $7.25

Solarbotics Solarcell_B

This polycrystalline cell offers 6.7V and 31mA in a 37x33mm package. Solder on the MSE circuit components to the marked locations on the back, flip it into the light, and you’ve got a readymade power source. Price: $7.25

Solarbotics Gearmotors

Gearmotor GM2 Gearmotor GM3

Gearmotor GM8 Gearmotor GM9

Solarbotics gearmotors are the perfect drive train for your small robotic or other mechanized projects. They offer impressive performance for the price, weight, and size, with 224: 1 (GM2 & 3) or 143: 1 (GM8 & 9) gear ratios. GM2s and 3s are good for more torque, 8s and 9s offer more speed. Each motor weighs 1.31 ounces and comes with built-in screw mounting holes.
Price: $5.50 each

If you’re looking for projects that can make use of Solarbotics gearmotors and solar cells, check out The Best of Instructables. It has a number of suitable projects, including How to Build Your First Robot (which uses the GM9 gearmotors) and The Gift of Robot Invasion (which requires cells like the Solarcell_Bs). The book has several other robot projects, including a nifty little self-balancing “robot” that works without any gyro or digital processing and is made almost entirely out of junk.

Best of Instructables Cover

The Best of Instructables has become one of the most popular magnets for makers and DIY enthusiasts of all stripes. Now, with more than 10,000 projects to choose from, the Instructables staff, editors of MAKE magazine, and the Instructables community itself have put together a collection of technology, craft and food hacking how-to’s from the site. The Best of Instructables Volume 1 includes plenty of clear, full-color photographs, complete step-by-step instructions, and tips, tricks, and new build techniques you won’t find anywhere else. Over 120 projects!

Of course, you’re going to need some place to record your Pinky and the Brain-like plans to take over the world with the robot minions you’re building. That’s where the Maker’s Notebook comes in. It even includes fun robot-related reference material, like Asimov’s Laws, Tilden’s Laws, and the Kenny Rogers Rule of robot building. What? You don’t know the Kenny Rogers Rule? That’s ’cause you don’t have the Maker’s Notebook! (Speaking of Laws of Robotics, we ran a contest to find some “Maker’s Laws of Robotics.” Here is the winning set, and a link to the other hysterical entries. Maybe we’ll add these laws to the next Maker’s Notebook reference section.)

Maker’s Notebook From the creators of MAKE & CRAFT magazines comes the Maker’s Notebook. Put your own ideas, diagrams, calculations & notes down in these 150 pages of engineering graph paper. We’ve also included 20 bonus pages of reference material, from useful stuff like electronics symbols, resistor codes, weights and measures, basic conversions and more, to really useful stuff like the amount of caffeine in different caffeinated beverages and how to say “Hello, World!” in various computer languages. The covers of this hardcover book are printed in cyan “Maker” blue with a white grid debossed front and back. Price: $19.99

Holiday Shipping Deadlines:

FedEx*: Ground – Dec 15th 3-Day Saver -Dec 17th 2-Day -Dec 18th Overnight -Dec 19th

*Customers experiences on orders with these ship methods placed after these dates may vary, the dates listed are what we call “safe dates”

USPS (Any Method):
Due to the high volume of mail that the postal service deals with around the holidays, order by Dec. 10th, however, many packages are lost or delayed in transit and we do not replace or refund any orders lost using this ship method, we strongly encourage you to not use this method in December.


Want more? Stop by the Maker Shed store and check out THE place for open source hardware, Arduino & Arduino accessories, electronic kits, science kits, smart stuff for kids, back issues of MAKE & CRAFT, box sets, books, robots, kits from Japan and more.

If I missed any kits or resources, post up in the comments.

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Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. His free weekly-ish maker tips newsletter can be found at

View more articles by Gareth Branwyn


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