These days, a toy store has more STEM bundles than a florist. At this year's Toy Fair, almost every company we visited launched a new robot or circuit board set to teach children the joys of building electronics and programming for them. One of the most intriguing robot kits at this year's show, UBTech's AstroBot kit can be built into one of three different characters and programmed using a simple mobile app.
Available this spring for $199, AstroBot can be built as either a treaded robot that looks a bit like Walle, a humanoid-style robot or a wheeled vehicle. It comes with 5 servo motors, and 397 different pieces to put together.
An infrared sensor keeps AstroBot from bumping into objects as it moves around. A speaker and a pair of 16-color LEDs allow it to make sounds and show colors.
During a brief demo at UBTech's booth, we got to see the AstroBot in action and were particularly impressed with its ability to grasp and lift objects. As we watched, a UBTech employee used a tablet to move the robot around a table-top surface and manipulated its hands so that it could pick up and carry a small cardboard box.
We also saw how easy it is for kids to program the AstroBot. With the app installed on any iOS or Android device, you can use Blockly, a development environment that involves dragging logic blocks around on a canvas and linking them together to form functions. If you want to get more advanced and actually see some code, a button will show you your application written in Swift, a popular programming language.
AstroBot is just the latest in UBTech's "Jimu" line of kid-friendly robots. The company has seven other kits which are already on the market, including TankBot, another tread-based robot that costs $149, but doesn't have the LED lights or design flexibility you'll find on AstroBot. The Inventor Kit comes with the most parts and the most flexibility -- it can make 9 different bots, but it costs a full $363.
All of the Jimu robot kits offer compelling ways for children to learn about programming and experience the joys and frustrations of putting electronics together.