You’ll be hard-pressed to find better ways to teach yourself programming than learning from a hands-on real-life experience, where you can see the manifestation of the code you write in real-time. How is that possible, you ask? By assembling a robot and then programming it yourself.
What do I mean by assembling? You see, building your own robot today isn’t as daunting as it was in the past. You can simply purchase a programmable DIY robot kit, follow the instruction manual to put it together, and once you’ve set up the hardware, you can then program it to your liking. It’s as simple as it gets.
Some of my readers might be under the impression that these DIY kits can be better thought of as toys, and they won’t be entirely wrong. Some of these kits are designed with children in mind, but that’s not even scratching the surface. Because most advanced, or even intermediate robot kits blur the line between pro-grade and DIY hardware. What it means is that an advanced programmable kit is as close as a DIY hobbyist can get to professional robot builds.
In this post, we’re looking at some programmable kits from an electronics platform called Arduino.
But first, what is “Arduino”?
Arduino is an open-source project — an electronics platform or programmable circuit board based on an extremely accessible and flexible software and hardware that can also be greatly extended and customized.
In other words…
You can tell the electronic components (in this case, an Arduino board) what to do using a programming language (say, C or C++) and loading the program (a very specific set of instructions) on the board. At its core, this is what Arduino’s platform offers.
Both the software and hardware from Arduino are open-source, which means they can be designed, programmed, and distributed by just about anyone. And since it’s open-source, you get access to many free software libraries which other enthusiast developers such as yourself have pieced together.
For those of you looking to experiment with robotics and programming to design your very own robots, here is a roundup of some of the best Arduino robot kits you can use for your personal projects. But keep in mind that best is a relative term because your skill level and personal preferences are mostly the factors at play here.
But enough introduction, let’s jump right in…
As the name might give away, this kit is aimed at educating children — act as a gateway to the wonderful world of robotics. And unlike most toys you can buy your kid, they won’t get bored with it a few hours later because it’s programmable. What it means is that your child can code and load their personal programs using either Arduino’s IDE (integrated development environment) or a Scratch environment.
If they’re not familiar with these environments, mBot offers an online course, so your child can get started. They’ll help lay the groundwork and maybe even spark a lifelong interest in programming.
The Makeblock Educational Arduino Robot Kit is an updated version of the Starter Robot Kit V1.0. You can build it into a robot tank or a three-wheeled robot car. Or if you’d like, you can program it to avoid obstacles or even tell it to follow a pre-plotted course.
Or if that doesn’t tickle your fancy, you can use to play music or do aerobatics. You can even play games with it. Why won’t your kid keep coming back to it? They’ll have a ton of fun playing with it and they’ll learn just as much along the way.
The kit is made from a blue aluminum structure and it also uses a Scratch 2.0 drag-and-drop visual programming.
This robot kit will teach users how to program the Arduino micro-controller to control physical objects using sensors. It can be hooked up to a PC wirelessly, which frees you from the hassle of plugging it in with a USB cable to load your code.
It is easy to wire and does not require soldering. The tools you’ll need for assembly come with the box, so you won’t have to drop a few extra bucks on those.
Like I mentioned above, Arduino is open-source, so a lot of manufacturers make their boards, but Elegoo is one of the leading manufacturers. Where this kit outshines the others, is in the fact that it is beginner-friendly yet not limited to a few builds the way most starter kits are.
This one kit can be assembled into a million different designs and projects – an impressive number. And that too without the need for buying special tools and then familiarizing yourself with them. Everything you’ll need comes right inside the box, which makes a for a solid foundation. Batteries, tools, parts, instruction manuals. You name it.
You can build a battery tester which would tell you how much charge a battery has left, or you could detect ectodermal (the upper layer of skin) activity. You’ll just have to write a ‘sketch’ or a program in Arduino and everything you’ll need for the hardware can already be found in the package. Or if you’re feeling a little more adventurous, a physical snake game which can be played on an 8×8 grid. The possibilities are endless.
All you have to do is order the kit, sift through the instructions provided, and a million possibilities are yours for the taking. I know what you’re thinking, this kit would be pricey since it is extensive and includes everything which you’ll need to go from a design on a sheet on paper to materializing it. But you’ll be surprised at how pocket-friendly this little guy is. So much so, that it is probably one of the most economical starter kits you’ll find in the market today.
It’s better suited for kids who’ve had some prior experience building robots or at least programming sketches because this kit gives you a more hands-on approach with its project and doesn’t necessarily touch on the ABC’s of robotics.
If you’re an absolute beginner, other starter picks on this list might be a better fit for you.
At first glance, this robot might not look more than a programmable toy but take a peek under the hood and you’ll quickly realize why Sparki is a good educational subject for STEM students.
Designed by ArcBotics and aimed at middle schoolers, this robot kit serves as a great introduction to robotics, electronics, and Arduino programming. But again, that doesn’t mean it’s a kids’ educational toy. It has something to offer for everybody. And yes, that includes experienced hobbyists.
Advanced and DIY robotics enthusiasts will also find fun in tinkering the kit, plus they will be able to learn more advanced lessons on programming and robotics from the ArcBotic’s excellent support.
Equipped with stepper motors, this bot offers better, more precise control than the cheap motors you’ll find installed in low-end bots. Speaking of control, right out of the box, you can control and test out the features of this bot with the remote control it ships with. So you won’t have to plug it in and load a program before you can use it.
As for the software, you can code sketches for your Sparki with either of the two environments: miniBloq tool or Sparkduino environment. Sparkduino is essentially just modified Arduino IDE which provides you with a graphical user interface for coding. But if you’re a text-based coding fan, Sparki also supports Coderbender.
miniBloq is graphical drag-and-drop programming, alongside C++. Although it simplifies the coding process, it is a bit laggy compared to Sparkduino, so I’d recommend that you stick to that instead.
In terms of output, you get an LCD screen on top (not something you often see in kits targeting a younger demographic), a gripper (so it can pick things up), LEDs, and buzzers. It also features an accelerometer and magnetometer – sensors which can open up new possibilities for every project.
This robot kit makes for a good head start for those who want to learn about all things Arduino, coding, electronics, and robotics. With its multiple projects to pick from and well-illustrated helpful tutorials, this kit can become an indispensable addition to your child’s homeschooling curriculum.
It can be built into 11 different kinds of robots from a line-following robot to obstacle-avoiding robot to interactive game robot, and more. It can even be built into a programmable drone which flies.
It’s engaging enough for your kid to keep coming back to it, so this kit won’t collect dust on the shelf. It’s easily wired and you won’t be needing a soldering iron to secure the connector pins. It’s easy to use and beginner-friendly, and more importantly, safe.
Robot arms have been around for almost five decades now, but they only found industrial applications during that time, at least until 2005. Thanks to Arduino, this tech was brought into the reach of DIY enthusiasts for domestic use with the introduction of Arduino micro-controllers.
But before I review this robotic arm, we need to understand what makes a robot arm tick. First things first, you’ll have to consider how much freedom of movement the kit allows. Secondly, you’ll have to ask yourself how many and what kind of motors you’ll be needing. The number and type of motors (either servo or stepper) determine the maximum payload the arm can handle.
This arm kit comes with servo motor, structural plywood parts, and fasteners — that’s everything you’ll need to design and build your own robot arm. The unit features a CD-ROM with MeCon software and Arduino source code.
What’s so exciting about this robot kit is that it allows the user to make their desktop-size, 4-axis industrial robotic factory arm right in the comfort of their homes, school or office. It’s no question that it’s also made for a good educational kit for those who want to learn programming, electronics, micro-controllers, and robotics.
Keeping the arm kit train going, we are looking at LittleArm by Slant Concepts. If you’re not a fan of clumsy robot arms which are awkward to handle, this LittleArm is the answer for those who would rather favor a pocket-sized and compact arm.
It’s easily configurable and just as easily 3d printed – features which make this kit a reliable and effective educational tool. Now onto what this arm brings to the table. The word of the day is ‘simplicity’. The design of the arm is ridiculously straightforward. And by the same token, the construction is just as undemanding, if not more.
You can control your LittleArm with either a PC or a smartphone which offers an intuitive GUI (yay). If you’re on the hunt for something inexpensive, or a project which should give you a peek into what goes on in the robotics world, I’d recommend this kit. If you have access to a 3d printer, this kit is not just pocket-sized, but also pocket-friendly.
As you can probably tell by now, Arduino’s platform isn’t just for programmers or robotics enthusiasts, but for just about anyone with a penchant for electronics. But that’s not where Arduino outstrips its competition. It’s not even the fact that it is one of the pioneers of robotics. But in the fact that the kits they manufacture are robust, sturdy, and built to last. And that they’re easily configured, expanded, and above all, won’t put a dent in your wallet.
What can Arduino’s kit teach me?
Arduino’s hardware is designed with novice users in mind – the ones looking for a taste of robotics, so you won’t be needing experience or technical knowhow of the field to get started. And the same goes for the software part. The hardware can be programmed via Arduino’s IDE or integrated development environment. This environment guides you through every step and you can code in any language you prefer.
If you’re a beginner, you can stick to an easier language say C++, and then move to more advanced ones once you get a solid foundation. You don’t to be a programmer to load programs on your Arduino board. You can code your programs (aka sketches) and upload them with a USB cable, or even a wireless connection if the board supports it.
And if you’re an expert, Arduino’s advanced kits promise a great many builds and some impressive expandability – more on that in a bit.
To bottom line it for you, building and programming a robot from a kit can give you some practical experience with programming, electronics, and equip you with problem-solving skills. This learning curve can often be intimidating for beginners, but these kits help make the process less daunting, and times, even fun.
Which kit is the right one for you?
Since the software is open-source, you’ll only be paying for the Arduino hardware. The open-source nature of this platform gives you access to an endless collection of libraries and source codes, which can download, modify, and use for your own projects. So it’s the hardware part which needs your attention before you take the plunge.
How would you like your imagination to be the limit for your projects? Sound too good to be true? Lucky for us, it is true. You have to take into consideration how much the kit you go for can be expanded. The more expandability a robot building kit offers, the more it can be customized as you go along the project and make changes.
But more often than not, kits which offer better expandability are a tad more expensive. So if you’re on a strict budget, or if you won’t be augmenting the kit later on, if that’s the case, an all-in-one kit should serve your purpose better.
Which brings us to our next point…
Depending on your project, you’ll need different kinds of components. Where one project might call for a certain set of sensors, the other one might require completely different ones. I’ll explain. If you’re trying to build, say a robot which can avoid obstacles and plot its course, you’ll have to mount navigation and imaging sensors on it.
So before you shortlist or decide on a particular kit, make sure that it meets the specific requirements of your project. If you’re having trouble anticipating the elements you’ll need, you can’t go wrong with an all-in-one robot kit.
I’ll conclude this post by saying that Arduino is a great platform for anyone interested in the field of robotics, regardless of their age or skill level. Thanks to their open-source nature, there is virtually an ocean of Arduino kits available in the market today. So go get yourself one, experiment, learn, and have a little fun along the way.