Which Robotics Kit Is Right for You?

Robotics Technology
Which Robotics Kit Is Right for You?
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There are an amazing variety of robot kits available, but which one is right for you? There is no such thing as the best kit, just the one most suitable for your purposes. Still, the number of choices can be confusing.

Why start with a kit? Well, there are several advantages. Generally, kits will be cheaper than buying all the same parts. The companies that put kits together buy parts in quantity, usually passing the savings to you. You also save on shipping costs, since you buy one box from one supplier. It is often a challenge to get all the parts you need for a robot from a single source, so you end up paying a significant amount in shipping costs.

Also, buying in one box means all your parts arrive at once. This saves you the annoyance of waiting for that one part on the slow boat from China that keeps you from getting started building.

Another advantage of a kit is that it is a complete design, which lets you get right into building your robot. A good kit comes with clear instructions and support.

We review several popular types of kits, share what to look for in each, and suggest examples to check out.

Starter Kits

Look for: Good instructions and support, low price, possibility for expansion

If you are a beginner robot maker, a starter kit may be perfect for you. You want a kit that comes with good instructions and support from the manufacturer. It is easy to get discouraged, and a good kit will bring you early success and fuel your desire to learn more and go further with your new hobby. Buy from reputable companies, and check the manufacturer’s website for downloadable manuals in your language, and the ability to contact them for assistance if needed. Some companies have great communities, where members help each other. If you find a kit you like and there’s a member support forum, help is never far away!

Price is also a factor. You don’t want to spend too much on your first robot kit. You’ll undoubtedly learn more and move on to more complex robots, so your first kit should not break the bank.

Some kits serve as a base for expansion. So consider if the kit you are looking at is a dead-end, can be expanded upon, or at the least has parts you can re-use later. Yes, robot makers often cannibalize their robots to make more robots. It’s a jungle out there.

The final thing to consider is programming. If you have some coding experience, you may want to lean towards a kit that is based on a programming platform you are already familiar with.

Makeblock — mbot
Makeblock — mbot

You’ll find some good example starter options from Makeblock. We recommend the mBot kit, which is about $100. Makeblock’s kits are made with high-quality aluminum and laser-cut acrylic parts. The mCore and Me Orion controller boards are 100% Arduino IDE compatible, and will also work with Makeblock’s graphical programming mBlock system, based on Scratch 2.0. These boards use modular RJ25 connectors (like household phone jacks), which is nice for beginners who don’t want to mess with wiring. Makeblock has parts and expansion modules so you can add more functionality to the kits.

EZ-Robot Revolution — Roli Rover
EZ-Robot Revolution — Roli Rover

Another great set of kits to look at is the Revolution line from EZ-Robot (read the founder’s story here). For a beginner we recommend the Adventure Bot due to its entry-level price of about $150. For some more advanced EZ-Robot kits, look at the JD Humanoid or Roli Rover, which seem the most popular. The EZ-Robot site also hosts an active community forum, which is very helpful.

EZ-Robot Revolution — JD Humanoid
EZ-Robot Revolution — JD Humanoid

Educational Robot Kits

Look for: Curriculum support and sturdy construction

If you are an educator, kits from companies that offer supporting curricula are ideal. You’ll want durable parts that will withstand abuse class after class. A graphical programming environment is a big plus as well.

Lego — Mindstorms
Lego — Mindstorms

Lego Mindstorms EV3 kits are quite popular with schools for a good reason. They meet all the criteria above, including products targeted specifically for middle schools, a site dedicated for educators, and even a community website. The Education EV3 Core Set, which costs about $380, is a great place to start.

Vex Robotics is another popular choice with schools. Vex’s RobotC programming language offers a nice graphical environment to learn on that can help students transition to C programming in the future. The solid Programming Control Starter Kit costs about $440.

For something a bit less traditional, take a look at the Cubelets kits from Modular Robotics. A 12 pack of Cubelets costs $330. This physical computing approach to robotics lets you combine different functional blocks together to make robots that can move, make sounds, light up, and sense the world around them, without even having to program them. You can expand upon the default behavior of the blocks using the graphical Blocky programming language. Like the more established Lego and Vex Robotics, Modular Robotics has support for educators, including free lesson plans.

Workshop Kits

Look for: Low price, engaging design, easy to build in a limited period of time

If you’ve ever run a robotics workshop, you know that good instructions, simple building techniques, and the ability to complete the project in a short time frame are top priorities. The project must also be fun and engaging. We favor kits that are inexpensive enough for the participants to take home, rather than re-usable kits that must be left behind.

Elenco — Line Tracker
Elenco — Line Tracker

Elenco’s Line Tracking Robot Kit is a perfect example. This cute, bright yellow, line-following kit is easy to assemble, requires no soldering, and can be completed in under an hour. We found it listed on Amazon for around $24.

For a slightly more advanced build, you can try DFRobot’s Insectbot Hexa kit. This walking insect robot navigates autonomously with an infrared distance sensor. The Arduino-compatible board comes pre-loaded with a default sketch, but is completely programmable. It’s a good value for a kit at about $38 each, and quantity discounts are available. For a short duration workshop, you can pre-build some of the more time-consuming or difficult steps and still complete the workshop in an hour.

Humanoid Kits

Look for: High-quality mechanical parts and servos

Humanoid robot kits can run thousands of dollars; we’ll focus on more affordable options. Look for high-quality mechanical parts and servos. It should be noted that even though we humans make tasks like walking look easy, programming a biped robot can be fairly complex.

Lynxmotion — Biped Pete
Lynxmotion — Biped Pete

Lynxmotion makes a range of biped robot kits. The company considers their kits development platforms, meaning they generally do not provide complete code or pre-programmed apps to run your biped — you must do the software development yourself. Lynxmotion has a free Servo Sequencer utility that works with their SSC-32 servo controller. You can also add a microcontroller if you want to make an autonomous biped. They also sell a development platform called FlowBotics Studio for about $40.

Lynxmotion’s kits include anodized black aluminum servo brackets, and you have options to buy the hardware alone, the hardware plus servos, or the hardware, servos, and a servo controller.

The lowest-end Biped BRAT has 3 degrees of freedom (DOF) for each leg, and is available as a combo kit including servos, electronics, and Lynxmotion’s BotBoarduino microcontroller and example programs for about $240. The Biped Scout has 6 DOF per leg, and sells for about $170 without servos and electronics, which would add over $500 bought separately. These two kits are just a pair of legs and a torso. The Biped Pete kit, however, is a full-fledged humanoid with arms, legs, a head, and gripper hands, with a massive 22 total DOF. Pete costs $370 for just the hardware. Adding servos, electronics, and a microcontroller will cost about $550 more.

Robotis makes some very high-end biped kits, but they really hit the sweet spot in the market with their Darwin-Mini biped, which retails for about $500. Robotis uses its own Dynamixel brand high-quality networked servos, which are a huge step up from hobby grade servos. It works with the Robotis R+ Task and R+ Motion software, or with a smartphone app.

Hexapod and Quadruped Kits

Consider: How many DOF can you afford?

Another very popular type of kit is the hexapod walker. Things to consider are the number of DOF per leg, and the quality of the parts. Example software with pre-programmed walking gaits and maneuvers is a plus too.

A six-legged robot with 3 DOF for each leg means 18 servos. The weight of the robot and the mechanical stress on the parts means those servos and the mechanical linkages that connect them must be very high quality.

ArcBotics — Hexy
ArcBotics — Hexy

At the entry-level end, the ArcBotics Hexy is good for beginners at about $250. The acrylic parts are lightweight, allowing for use of smaller servos. Although the stock servos sold with Hexy have plastic gears, ArcBotics has come out with a metal gear servo that they offer to Hexy customers at a discount.

Higher end kits that use aluminum frames and servos with reliable metal or high-quality resin gears tend to be more expensive. Lynxmotion has an impressive and somewhat overwhelming choice of hexapod kits. The AH2 kit is a 12-servo walker (2 DOF per leg) that costs about $410. Compare that to the AH3 kit, an 18-servo walker, which costs about $940.

Fewer servos cuts weight and costs, so for an economical walking robot, consider a quadruped such as Lynxmotion’s SQ3, which runs about $550. However, there are even lower-end kits out there yet.

Take a look at this relative newcomer from Spierce Technologies, the mePed v2.0 Complete Kit, coming in under $90. Spierce had an earlier 1.0 version that was more limited, but the new kit is complete with everything you need to build it, and many design improvements over their original model.

Wheeled Kits

Consider: 2WD, 4WD or more? Differential steering, or something exotic?

Wheeled robots that turn with the front wheels like a car are somewhat rare, as this makes navigation more complicated. Some robots can pivot the direction of their wheels like a caster to change direction, but this is also rare to find in kits. There are robots with six wheels and even special wheel designs (omnidirectional, Mecanum, etc.) that allow for other steering methods.

Most wheeled robot kits have either two or four wheels and use a differential drive, with powered wheels on each side that change speed and direction to turn the robot. That’s our focus here.

Two-wheel drive (2WD) robots are very maneuverable, since they can spin around the center point between the two drive wheels. The Pololu 3pi Robot is a great example and costs just under $100. The 3pi can be expanded with a second deck.

Another nice 2WD example is the DFRobot MiniQ 2WD Complete Kit at $80. The MiniQ also comes in a 4 wheel drive (4WD) version for about $100.

Tracked Kits

Consider: Do you need a good base for a project, or a complete, functioning robot?

Robots with tracks like a tank use differential steering like most wheeled robots. Smaller tracked robots are easy to find as kits, but larger ones are generally sold as a base chassis you can build upon to make your robot.

RobotShop — Tracked Tank Kit
RobotShop — Tracked Tank Kit

RobotShop makes a nice robot tank kit for about $90 with a built-in Arduino-compatible control board and an onboard LiPo battery charger. This kit can be expanded by adding an Arduino shield daughterboard, using the solder prototyping area, and with two XBee sockets for wireless communications.

Several manufacturers use Dagu’s Rover 5 Tracked Chassis as a base, including a SparkFun kit that costs about $60. You’ll need to add your own control electronics and sensors.

For a higher-end tracked robot, you could start with the Lynxmotion Tri-Track Chassis for around $220. Like the Rover 5 above, you’ll need to add to this chassis to make a complete robot.

Get Building!

The world of robotics is very broad. In addition to the categories listed, there are robotic arms, balancing robots, flying robots, swimming robots, and much more. This list should be a good starting point for the most common types of robot kits. Decide which category you are interested in, then use the examples for comparison and pick the kit that is best for you.

Robot Kits and Parts Makers

Looking for more robot kits? The options are numerous. This list of kit makers is still far from complete, but should cover just about any project you want to start.

  • Abilix
  • Adafruit Industries
  • AeroQuad
  • AndyMark
  • ArcBotics
  • Arduino
  • Artec Block
  • BirdBrain Technologies
  • BirdsEyeView
  • Chibitronics
  • Commonplace Robotics
  • Cytron
  • Dagu
  • Dexter Industries
  • Dongbu Robot
  • DFRobot
  • ElecFreaks
  • Elenco
  • EZ-Robot
  • FingerTech
  • Fischertechnik
  • Gears EdS
  • Hangfa Hydraulic Engineering
  • Hexbug
  • Hicat.livera
  • Inspectorbots
  • ITead Studio
  • JCM inVentures
  • Keenon Robot
  • King Kong Robot
  • Kondo Robot
  • KumoTek
  • Learning Resources
  • Lego
  • LinkSprite
  • littleBits
  • Lynxmotion
  • Makeblock
  • MeArm
  • Microbric
  • Microduino
  • Mindsensors
  • Modular Robotics
  • Multiplo
  • Nexus Robot
  • OpenROV
  • OWI
  • Parallax
  • Pittsco
  • PlayMonster
  • Pololu
  • Quirkbot
  • Revolution Education
  • REV Robotics
  • RoboBrothers
  • RoboBuilder
  • RoboCore
  • Robopec
  • RobotGeek
  • Robotiq
  • Robotis
  • Robotnik
  • RobotShop
  • SainSmart
  • Seeed Studio
  • ServoCity
  • SmartLab Toys
  • Solarbotics
  • SparkFun
  • Spierce Technologies
  • SunFounder
  • SuperDroid Robots
  • Tamiya
  • Thames & Kosmos
  • Tinkerbots
  • Trossen Robotics
  • UBTech
  • Velleman
  • Vex Robotics
  • Wonder Workshop
  • XYZ Robotics
Discuss this article with the rest of the community on our Discord server!

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.

View more articles by Andrew Terranova


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