Skill Builder: Hexbug Hacking

Skill Builder: Hexbug Hacking

In response to our Robotics theme, several parents have written me to ask about entry-level robotics projects for little kids, and what’s the appropriate age of entry. Of course, the latter part of that is hard to answer. It depends very much on the child. The obvious entry point is the Lego Mindstorms building system. But in thinking about other product lines or building sets that can scale well with age and growing technical sophistication, Hexbug came to mind.

Hexbug is a line of inexpensive bugbots created by Innovation First, the company that makes the kits for the FIRST Robotics competitions. Hexbugs are basically commercialized versions of the Bristlebot and various BEAM robotic designs. The coolest thing about them is that they scale well for kids, from as young as four all the way up. Do a search on Hexbugs on YouTube and you’ll find tons of vids of kids building complex mazes, out of things like toilet paper tubes and Legos, to create a sort of robo-critter’s answer to a hamster habitrail (using the Hexbug Nanos). From there, you can easily move up to adding LED lights to your Hexbugs. And waterproofing them and turning them into swimmers. Industrious bug-hackers have added light-triggered switches, to make the Nanos scatter like roaches when exposed to light.

And then there are the more ambitious priojects, like giving Hexbugs real brains. Here’s a project to retrofit a Hexbug Original with a Microchip PIC controller. Pretty cool to end up with a miniature, programmable, six-legged walkerbot for $35 total. The project instructions also do a decent job of documenting a Hexbug’s innards.

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And here’s a project to turn a Hexbug Original into an autonomous, solar-powered bugbot.

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Here’s a brained Hexbug that can be controlled wirelessly via an mbed MCU, an ATmega328, and a Nordic nRF24L01p 2.4 GHz transceiver chip.

For many more Hexbug projects, from the simple to the advanced, do a Google or YouTube search on “Hexbug hacks.”

Note: In honor of MAKE Volume 27, our robot issue, we’ll continue to run our robotics theme here on the site for the month of August. And say tuned for the launch of our series on metalworking.

Robot Skill Builder series
Robotics section of Make: Projects

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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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