Open Source Robotics: A Buyer’s Guide

Robotics Technology
Open Source Robotics: A Buyer’s Guide


The phrase “open source” describes a product whose design is published with the understanding that anyone is legally free to modify, distribute, make, or even sell their own version of it. In the case of hardware like robots, the same design will often be available for sale — perhaps with various modifications and in various stages of completion, from parts to kits to fully-built — from unaffiliated manufacturers. Some of these may seem pricey, but remember you’re free to make, mod, or even manufacture as much (or as little) of the finished product as you want.

While there are lots of incentives for a company to claim that its products are “open-source,” there are also lots of incentives for it to be a bit lax on follow-through. Just because it says “open source” on the banner ad doesn’t mean the design files are actually publicly available, or that they’re accurate, complete, and up-to-date. Don’t take anybody’s word on it, and always download the files and verify them yourself. Especially before shelling out any hard-mined bitcoins.

Not For Sale

It takes a lot of work to bring a robot design, open or otherwise, to market. For every open-source robot you can buy, there are a dozen more that have never been or are no longer commercially available, for whatever reasons. The quality of these varies pretty widely, from pie-in-the-sky projects that were launched and forgotten in a matter of weeks, to astounding academic designs developed and published as part of a graduate thesis or undergraduate capstone project. Some of the most ambitious efforts focus on the development of open humanoid, anthropomorphic, and/or prosthetic platforms, which we have covered separately. Listed here are just a few of the most outstanding and unique non-humanoid designs available on the web right now:



An ongoing project by Japanese hobbyist Sho Yoshida, Shellmo is a beautifully-designed 3D-printed character robot controlled by Android and Arduino. Builders have the choice of one of two intricate leg mechanisms, depending on the 3D printing technology they prefer to use. Micropede is designed for SLS or other high-resolution pro-grade equipment, and RepWalker for consumer-grade FFF printers. Shellmo’s other moving parts include his carapace segments, eyes, and eyelids.



Published in 2012 by Sara Lohmann, Jason Yosinski, Eric Gold, Jeff Clune, Jeremy Blum, and co-workers in the Hod Lipson group at Cornell’s Creative Machines Lab, Aracna is designed to have legs that are lighter — and therefore faster-moving — than other multiped designs, which is achieved by moving the leg servos into the central body and actuating the joints via a four-bar linkage. The physibles and software are in separate Github repos.

Project Biped


Jonathan Dowdall is a software engineer at Google X and the driving force behind Project Biped, an initiative to “develop a dynamically balanced, bipedal robot that can be built using off the shelf hardware and an inexpensive 3D printer.” The design has been through four major revisions, so far; ROFI, the most advanced as of this writing, is shown in red above.

The 4volt Jansen Walker

virtualDiver - 4volt Jansen walker

An oldie-but-goodie, the parts for this panel-cut version of kinetic sculptor Theo Jansen’s famous Strandbeest mechanism are thing number 478 on Thingiverse (as of this writing, Thingiverse more than 320,000 things). They were first uploaded by user 4volt in 2009. Shown above is German model-maker virtualDiver’s chain-and-sprocket driven version in beautiful black acrylic.

Orb Swarm


This is one of six spherical robots that make up a kinetic sculpture called SWARM. Since 2007, SWARM has appeared at Burning Man, Maker Faire, Yuri’s Night, and many other events. The round shells are made of water-jet cut aluminum, and the robots move by pushing against the weight of their internal battery packs. Each unit’s onboard electronics include a GPS receiver, IMU, multicolor LED banks, speakers, and an embedded system running Linux.

I know I missed your favorite! Sorry about that.

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I am descended from 5,000 generations of tool-using primates. Also, I went to college and stuff. I am a long-time contributor to MAKE magazine and My work has also appeared in ReadyMade, c't – Magazin für Computertechnik, and The Wall Street Journal.

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