Make: Holiday Gift Guide 2009: Robots

Make: Holiday Gift Guide 2009: Robots

Another year, another profusion of robot kits, toys, and showy humanoids demo’d by entertainment conglomerates and big car companies. The more things change, the more they stay the same. It wasn’t a huge leap year for the evolution of robokind, but there are definitely plenty of new tools and toys to play with, and plenty of perennial favorites, too. Let’s have a look…

Fully-Assembled Robots

Roborover (WowWee Toys, $79)
Joebot (WowWee Toys, $99)
WowWee keeps cranking out the robot models, most variations on the theme of the Robosapien. This year, two of their bots included the Roborover and the Joebot. Both of these robots are clearly designed to act as synthetic “buddies” for kids, and have amiable personalities and programmed “can do” attitudes. Roborover is geared towards younger children, has a simple remote control interface, and tread mobility, so it can traverse low-lying objects. Joebot is the first WowWee robot that responds to voice commands. He’s a lot more versatile than Roborover and can store up to 40 programmed steps in a playback sequence. Like his Robosapien forebots, Joe has a wacky personality and uses animated LED lights on his face to express various “emotions.” And given his constant chattering, bad joke telling, and general mischief-making, it’s comforting to know he comes with a volume control.

i-Sobot (Maker Shed, $126)
We got a bunch of these in the Maker Shed last year after TOMY discontinued them. We still have a few left and are selling them for half their original price. This is a very hackable little robot. It is a 6-1/2″-tall humanoid that uses 17 servomotors to somersault, stand on one leg, do push-ups, perform martial arts, and more. 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 him to say “hello,” introduce himself, play air guitar, bow to an audience, and say “good night.” Oh, and he farts, too. 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. has some links to i-SOBOT hacking-related resources here.


RoboNova-1 RTW (Trossen, $1,050.00)
The Robo-One competitions show no sign of slowing down and they are now one of the most active areas of hobby robotics. An easy way to get in on the action (if you or your gift-giver have a grand-plus lying around) is with one of the Hitec kits. This is no toy, but a fully-programmable mini humanoid with 16 HSR-8498HB digital servos on-board and a MR-3024 MCU that can handle up to 24 servos. This version comes fully assembled, but you can also get it in a kit for $900.


MechRC ($600, Trossen)
Trossen also carries the MechRC, a pretty impressive humanoid bot for the price. Some of its features include high torque metal gear servos, LiPo batteries, a 3D visual programming interface, and a remote control unit. The MechRC comes with over a hundred pre-installed motions and sounds.

Kit Robots


Stingray ($300, Parallax)
The new Stingray robot from Parallax looks like a good value for the money. It uses a multicore (eight 32-bit processors) Propeller MCU, a 64KB EEPROM, on-board 3.3V & 5V switching power supplies, 5V I/O translators to simplify interfacing to 5V sensors/devices, integrated dual full bridge drivers, two-wheel differential drive system with a rear omnidirectional wheel, and a bunch of other nifty features. If I was looking to get a bot this Christmas, this one would be high on my wish list.


OWI-535 Robotic Arm Edge (Maker Shed, $50)
Those of you who remember the Radio Shack Armatron and Super Armatron will get a kick out of this OWI kit, which has a very similar feel. Five gearmotors power a gripper, and control wrist motion of 120°, an elbow with a range of 300°, a base rotation of 270°, base motion of 180°, a vertical reach of 15″, horizontal reach of 12.6″, and a lifting capacity of 100g. Assembly is required, using common hand tools.


Arduino- and Atmel-powered Robots

Pololu 3pi Robot Bundle (Maker Shed, $99)
The 3pi robot is 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. This economical bundle from the Maker Shed includes the Orangutan. The bundle also includes an expansion PCB that sits 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. This would be an ambitious bot for a beginner (the programming part, anyway — it comes assembled) 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 awesome bundle from the Shed includes the fully assembled 3pi, the Orangutan USB programmer, the cut-away expansion board, AND a Maker’s Notebook, so you can record all of your development ideas and experiment notes as you explore the 3pi’s capabilities. That’s all that gear for the original price of the bot itself! If you already have a suitable programming cable (and a Maker’s Notebook), you can get the 3pi by itself for $70.
Blubber Bot Robotic Inflatable (Maker Shed, $100)
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.

Bot Brains


RoBoard RB-100 Starter Kit ($298, Trossen Robotics)
In MAKE, Volume 19, our robot issue, Tod E. Kurt did a review of the RoBoard, the single-board computer optimized for robots. Here’s an excerpt from his review:

The RoBoard is essentially a 1GHz PC-compatible x86 board in a 96 x 56 x 22mm (3.78″ x 2.2″x.85″) space. It has 256MB RAM and all the normal ports you’d expect from on a laptop: micro-SD slot, USB, Ethernet, VGA, PS/2, audio, and serial ports. It also includes the I/O of a microcontroller: I2C & SPI serial, 8-channel analog input, 40 digital input/output pins. Somewhat uniquely it includes hardware support for up to 32 RC servos. And it does it all while drawing only 2.5 Watts of power (5V @ 500mA).

The RoBoard can run any standard desktop OS that fits in 256MB of RAM and onto the 4GB “disk” of a user-supplied micro-SD card. At, you can find good instruction manuals for installing Windows XP and Linux. You need an external USB floppy and CDROM for Windows or a USB flash drive to install Linux. Installation is about as complex as on a netbook, except that you must supply your own monitor, keyboard and mouse. I installed the recommended version of Debian Linux without a hitch.

With OS installs on an SD card, you can swap out OSes or applications easily. Because it’s a standard x86 platform, you can use most any development environment you’re familiar with. You can develop directly on the board itself or on your desktop and just copy over your code. Not having built-in WiFi is a big minus, but can be remedied with a USB WiFi adapter. And as a robotics hobbyist, I wish the price was a bit lower, but if you need the RoBoard’s capabilities it will be worth it.

Arduino (Maker Shed, prices vary)
Of course, Arduino makes for fine robotic brains. The Maker Shed has a large selection of Arduino MCUs and Arduino support hardware, books, etc. Also, look for our All-Arduino Gift Guide on December 8th, here on Make: Online.

BEAM-ish Bots


Maker Bundle #1 (Maker Shed, $69.95)

The Maker Bundle #1 combines all of the electronic components required to make four of the beginner-to-intermediate robot projects we’ve featured in MAKE magazine. 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.


HexPummer Kit (Maker Shed, $27)
The HexPummer is 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. This is a great entry-level kit, something that the builder will have fun showing off when s/he’s done making it.

Make Pt0169

Herbie the Mousebot (Maker Shed, $40)
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, that it’s been featured as a construction project in Junkbot, Bugbots, and Bots on Wheels, Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Building Robots, and MAKE magazine. Enhanced with functional whisker and tail sensors, this mousebot 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.


Beetlebot Kit (Maker Shed, $18)
This is a bundle the Shed put together of Jerome Demer’s ingenious no-brained bot from MAKE, Volume 12. It includes the switches, motors, and a battery holder needed to build the Beetlebot. It also comes with Volume 12 itself, so you have all the instructions you need. This is an awesome little critter that demonstrates the BEAM principle of Zen-like simplicity in design (the fewest, most basic components required to create a desired robot “behavior”). Using only two motors, two switches, and power, you create a “robot” that avoids obstacles. This would make an awesome stocking stuffer for bot builders of all ages and skill-levels.

Make Pt0168
SolarSpeeder 2 kit (Maker Shed, $25)
The SolarSpeeder kit from Solarbotics is a great introduction to both BEAM robotics and basic electronics and soldering. It uses a Miller Solar Engine circuit, 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 all beginners.


Photopopper Photovore 5.0 Kit (Maker Shed, $45)
The photopopper is a classic BEAM design and this Photopopper Photovore kit from Solarbotics is a gorgeous rendition of this common BEAM circuit used to create a light-seeking (photovoric) robo-critter. A little challenging to build, so not for the beginner, but anyone with moderate soldering/kit-building skills should have no trouble.

Mechanical Kits, Automata, and Robot Toys


OLLO Bug Kit (Maker Shed, $99)
OLLO Action Kit (Maker Shed, $30)
OLLO kits are building sets that allow you to build robots, machines, toys, and other things your fevered imagination can come up with. The kits come with detailed instructions for building many different types of robotic creatures. The Bug kit comes with a remote control unit and an IR detector unit so you can remotely control your creations.
Mechamo Centipede Kit (Maker Shed, $90)
Make yourself a remote controlled “Meka-Centipede” with 32 legs that undulate like waves as they all move together. The effect is mesmo-rizing. No soldering required.

Mechamo Crab Kit (Maker Shed, $70)
Give life to a remote-controlled “Meka-Crab.” It moves in parallel without moving up and down, raising only the tips of its legs to traverse obstacles, just like a bio-crab!

Mechamo Inchworm Kit (Maker Shed, $70)
Inch by inch, bot by bot. Make a cool remote controlled “Meka-Inchworm” with this fun, no-solder kit.

The Mechanical Motorized Kits series:

Automech Kit (Maker Shed, $18)
Burn rubber! Familiarize yourself with the operation of transmissions steered through gears or pulleys. Easy to build, no glue or soldering required. Age 10+.

Tyrannomech Kit (Maker Shed, $18)
Fear this predator! Easy to build, no glue or soldering required. Age 10+

Robomech Kit (Maker Shed, $18)
Robot Attack! Easy to build, no glue or soldering required. Great gift idea! Age 10+.

Co Robot

Co-Robot Kit (Maker Shed, $30)
This is one wired little robo-dude! Powered by a single motor, he walks at a very frenetic pace and lets little get in his way. If he falls over, he rights himself. An awesome design with an amazing gear mechanism, the Co-Robot never quits. Over 50,000 sold in Japan and a hit at the International Robot Exhibition last year. Instructions are in Japanese but features highly detailed assembly pictures. Easy to build. Made of high impact plastic.


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, Ant is $10, and the Inchworm is $20. These would make great stocking stuffers.

HexBug Nano (Hexbug, $10)
This year, HexBug introduced a new line, called HexBug Nano. They’re basically designed around the Bristlebot concept and look amazingly insect-like in their movements and behavior.

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 little 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 (Maker Shed, $25)
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.

Solarengine Upgrade Kit (Maker Shed, $35)
Want a way to get started in electronics, and turn junk into something cool and useful? Use the BEAM philosophy of making it solar-powered for autonomy and long life! Uses the higher performance, SCC3733 Miller Solar Engine (MSE).

Solar Cells

Make Pt0171

Solarbotics Solarcell_A (Maker Shed, $7.25)
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!

Solarbotics Solarcell_B (Maker Shed, $5)
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.

Solarbotics Gearmotors

Gearmotor GM2 Gearmotor GM3

Gearmotor GM8 Gearmotor GM9
Gearmotors (Maker Shed, $5.50 each)
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.

With all that robot engineering you’re going to be doing, you’re going to need a perfect place to keep all of your drawings, notes, and grand plans. That’s what we made the Maker’s Notebook for! Besides the 1/8″ numbered, engineering graph paper pages, it also 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!

Maker’s Notebook (Maker Shed, $20)
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. The new version of the Notebook comes with a built-in elastic closure, a built-in accordion pocket in the back, and two vinyl MAKE sticker sheets.


MAKE, Volume 19 (Maker Shed, $15)
If you (or your gift recipient ) missed Volume 19, our Robots, Rovers, and Drones issue, this is a worthy survey of what’s going on in DIY robotics at the moment, with articles, projects, a round-up from industry experts and amateur enthusiasts, and lots more. Includes a how-to on building our very own Makey the Robot.

This guide, of course, only scratches the surface of what robotic-related offerings are out there. What are some of your favorite (or desired) robots or robot kits? Post in Comments.


In the Maker Shed:


Want more? Stop by the Maker Shed. We’ve got all sorts of great holiday gift ideas, 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.

Holiday Shipping Deadlines in December:

04 (Fri) – Deadline for microscope shipping
11 (Fri) – postal shipping deadline
14 (Mon) – ground shipping deadline
18 (Fri) – FedEx 3-day shipping deadline
21 (Mon) – FedEx 2-day shipping deadline
22 (Tue) – FedEx overnight shipping deadline

*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.

4 thoughts on “Make: Holiday Gift Guide 2009: Robots

  1. John Baichtal says:

    Encyclopedic — awesome!

  2. Gareth Branwyn says:

    Hey, thanks, John. I have fun putting these together. There’s a ton more stuff I could’ve put in here, but my wrist got sore from typing!

    Folks should check out sites like, for more bots like Robo-One competitors and beginner and intermediate kits, for LOTS more variations on the Robosapien theme and other high-tech toys (like the FlyTech line), Jameco’s, and, for some other kits I didn’t mention and robot components. And that doesn’t even mention the area of combat robotics!

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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

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