8 SERVO 07.2017
Q. My stepdaughter has excellent mechanical aptitude for a fourth grader and I’d like to give her a gentle nudge toward robotics.
Can you recommend a simple inexpensive kit that
we can build together? Preferably one which
requires no programming, since we know nothing
about that. I have a shop and tools, so we can
handle mechanical construction, wiring, and even
soldering. I’ve seen some robots which follow lines
and some which steer towards light. Something like
those might be fun to try.
A. Fantastic question! There are many kits out here to choose from which don’t require any programming. I’m a mechanical engineer and toy
designer. I was into toy robots as a 1960’s kid, back before
electronic and programmable toys when everything was
done with brute mechanical cleverness. I’ve always been a
huge fan and staunch supporter of simplicity and
minimalism, so I may dive deeper into this question than
you were prepared for.
Elegant robotic walking mechanisms are fun to build
and watch, and are a great first project. Two of my favorite
snap-together kits are shown in Figure 1. The motorized
“electric walking spider robot” (eBay 401202985302)
and Theo Jansen’s wind-powered “Strandbeest” (eBay
252416741833) are each under $7 from China. These
versions simply walk in a straight line, but I have found
them to be quite hackable to build “real robots.” In fact, I
wrote construction articles on each, in the March and April
2014 issues of SERVO. Videos are available at
and https://www.you tube.com/watch?v=
USA-based OWIKIT has been making all sorts of robot
kits for many years. You can visit them at
www.owirobot.com. OWI’s reconfigurable multi-tread all-terrain robot is shown in Figure 2. Their current line is not
electronic, so assembly is strictly electromechanical:
switches, wires, motors, gears, and linkages.
Some of their kits can be built in multiple
configurations, including walking and rolling robots. Some
use batteries and others have various alternative energy
sources: hydraulic, solar power, compressed air, and salt
water fuel cells using magnesium.
OWI also makes kits to build a hydraulic robot arm and
a new mag-lev train. Two of my favorite OWI toys not on
that website are the Air Racer at https://www.you
tube.com/watch?v= wa1pL5cwwo4 and their EDGE
robot arm at https://www.you tube.com/watch?v=
The vintage TAB “Build Your Own Robot Kit” shown in
Figure 3 was sold in bookstores and electronics retailers
circa 2001. Fairly revolutionary in its day, it can still be
easily found in various stages of completion on eBay and
Amazon for $25-$50. Reviews are polarized; people either
by Eric Ostendorff
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