There are many cool tech toys on the market... But Cubelets make building robots quick and fun. Cubelets are a new robot construction kit from Modular Robotics. Snap these small magnetic blocks together, and without further ado your robot starts to sense, plan, and act. Your robot's behavior depends entirely on how you've assembled the Cubelets; behaviors emerge from the local interactions between Sense, Think, and Action Blocks -- no single “brain” block and no single “program” controls the robot. For example, a Light Sense Block atop a Drive Action Block makes a light-fearing robot. Turn the Drive Action Block around and it’s a light-lover. The KT06 kit, launching next week at CES in Las Vegas, gets you started with six blocks; meanwhile, the KT01 kit includes a full gamut of Sense, Think, and Action Blocks. Cubelets are great for little kids; they can build their first robot in seconds, but big kids (adults) find Cubelets just as much fun too. This Cubelets video (below) shows how it works.
Cubelets were developed by Eric Schweikardt at Carnegie Mellon University, one of the leading centers for robotics research. Modular Robotics, a spinoff company to commercialize Cubelets, was funded by a small business grant from the National Science Foundation. Several years in the making, Cubelets are assembled in Boulder, Colorado from parts made all over the world. The key idea is deceptively simple: each Cubelet does only one thing, but neighboring Cubelets communicate to produce an ensemble with complex behavior. Sense Cubelets turn signals from the real world (like light, temperature, and proximity) into a number; Action Cubelets turn numbers back into real world signals (like light, motion, and sound); and Think Cubelets (like minimum and maximum) operate on the numbers that flow through a Cubelets-based robot. Inspired by Braitenberg’s Vehicles (the classic "Vehicles: Experiments in Synthetic Psychology"), Cubelets aim to get people thinking about how complex systems emerge from local interactions.
Kids are already having fun with Cubelets in science centers and children’s museums around the US, including the Boston Museum of Science and the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh, and Cubelets were part of the recent Museum of Modern Art “Talk to Me” exhibit (who knew? real robots as modern art!). They’ve been out of stock for several months as the company worked kinks out of its supply chain but they’re back now, at least for the moment.
Mark Gross is a professor at Carnegie Mellon University in the School of Architecture. He is also co-founder and research director at Modular Robotics.
First, I have to say: I love the commentary in the Cubelets video up above...
Cubelets are for you to play with. They are a system of interlocking, interactive friends who help you create robotic good times... just like you and bumblebees do!
"Robotic good times..." in that accent -- Priceless!
Anyway, Mark is somewhat humble. Cubelets have already been featured in Ars Technica, Wired, Make Magazine, and IEEE Spectrum's Automaton Blog. Truth is, they really do make creating behavior-based robots a "snap" -- get it, you just "snap" them together (OK, bad pun). I'm glad to hear that Modular Robotics will have their kits available in time for CES this year (stop by their booth if you're in the area!). The new KT06 kits start you out with just six blocks; that should be enough to get you started, but it's still quite a bit fewer than the KT01 kit's 20-blocks.
Early on Modular Robotics built somewhere around 250 beta kits (KT01) that had 20 blocks; I still kick myself for not purchasing one, since they've been unavailable for a while (like Mark said, supply chain kinks). Per Sjoborg at Flexibility Envelope did an unboxing of the beta kit, and YouTube user neubertify had this cool video:
Regardless of the kit contents, I think Cubelets will be great for robot education -- particularly for younger (elementary school) children. They're even easier to use than Lego Mindstorms!
Personally, I'm most interested in Modular Robotics' back-story -- how they got funding and the trials and tribulations they faced while creating their first product. The story is fantastic, and laid out for everyone to see on their very honest and open blog: From SBIR funding ($100k Phase I and $500k Phase II); to Crowdsourced packaging design (despite their nomenclature misgivings); to hardware design woes; and Chinese production issues like this:
Most of our custom parts are made at factories in mainland China. We have a metal stamping factory in the North, a magnet factory in Ningbo, a PCB factory in Wuhan, and our injection molder in the South, in Guangdong Province. Eleven other factories make things like gears, screws, spring pins, etc. I’ve been working directly with our suppliers now for three years, and I’ll be the first to admit that coordination and communication is a serious challenge. It’s hard to get the right parts.
Our main challenge now seems to be getting our suppliers to send us the same parts as they did for the last order. Almost across the board, we’ll place a re-order (“please send us 10,000 more of the exact same widget as before”) and receive something different. It’s weird: metal parts stamped from a different material, spring pins plated differently, PCBs of the wrong thickness, and plastic parts in the wrong color. Honestly? It’s driving me crazy.
Thankfully, the Modular Robotics folks are a good team and have amazing advisors (like Nathan Seidle, CEO of SparkFun). If you're thinking about launching a robotics company, the Modular Robotics blog is a must-read.
A few closing thoughts for the Modular Robotics crew... First, I encourage you to maintain openness about block designs (3D CAD), electrical interfaces, and software API's. Hopefully, this could spur innovation and collaboration so that others can contribute their own interoperable blocks (ie. your experience with the "roller" block). Second, I encourage you to (continue to) document your processes and lessons on your blog. Finding information about "good" hardware designs (for overseas fabrication) is rare -- and would be incredibly useful (at least to me). Oh yeah, hardware teardowns are always sexy too. ;-)
Finally, Eric Schweikardt gave this talk at the University of Colorado that discusses the history of Cubelets (among other things) -- it might be worth watching too: