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Jul
20

Makeblock Starter Robot Kit Review

by Rob Zwetsloot

An educational robot to teach kids how to build and code – is this the future of classrooms or the start of Skynet?

We have a small army of robots here at LU&D. And a small quadcopter. We’ll need them for when we take control of Cupertino, but for now we like to think of what different tasks they can help with. In the case of the Makeblock Starter Robot Kit from the Little British Robot Company, it’s education.

The Makeblock Starter Kit is a relatively cheap, Arduino- powered robot that is designed to be built and programmed manually. Everything is kept fairly simple so that kids can get involved with construction and learn how some of the more basic electronics work in the process.

We're trying to figure out if we want to reference Shortcircuit or Wall-E in this caption
We’re trying to figure out if we want to reference Shortcircuit or Wall-E in this caption

The Makeblock kit is all about assembling building blocks in three major parts: putting together the Arduino caddy, constructing a chassis for it and finally programming it via Arduino IDE.

The biggest task is the chassis, for which you have two options: a tank complete with treads, or a three-wheeled ‘car’ with two wheels up front. We obviously started off with the tank, which had a slightly more involved construction; however, it’s nothing more advanced than what you’d expect in a Meccano set. We had it constructed in about two-to-three hours, but that could change depending on skill level and whether or not you’re distracted by other work.

The Arduino part requires little construction and sits neatly on top of the robot in both modes. The wiring is a little fiddly and you need to do some serious thinking about keeping them tidy on your final build; otherwise it’s fairly easy to get everything connected up, especially when you follow the simple instructions.

Programming the Makeblock starts off with some very easy example programs that can be uploaded straight to the Arduino Leonardo, powering it via a USB cable. This works across all platforms as well, for maximum convenience.

The basic programs include using the bundled remote to control the robot or use of the sensors to navigate obstacles. The sensors don’t give the widest range of coverage, so we found it regularly running along walls. However, part of the point of the Makeblock is that it’s fully modifiable. Looking at the example code, you can easily make it give more berth while turning away from walls and other obstacles.

There are a lot more examples to use with the Makeblock and, of course, you can use them to then build your program. These can be simple things like better remote control or more complicated drone tasks. As it’s Arduino, you can also add extra modules such as a real-time clock or a camera.

The Little British Robot Company also supplies a mount for the Raspberry Pi, although you’d need to program the Pi and wire up the robot manually without any instructions on how to do it. As a next step beyond the Arduino phase, it’s quite big but it can be very rewarding.

The Makeblock is excellent and one of the best robot kits we’ve come across for education. More and more robots are beginning to enter this market space, so the competition will soon be fierce. However, this kit is nicely priced and comes with a great set of options that will make your old school’s BBC Micro and turtle combination look positively ancient.

Verdict

4/5

The Makeblock Starter Robot is an excellent kit for teaching with, thanks to simple construction and plenty of example codes that allow anyone to pick up the basics of Arduino. There are some minor issues with the cable and the way it navigates obstacles, but overall these are nothing to impede the way it’s meant to be used.

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