2011 Top 10 Robot Christmas Gift Ideas

Posted 16 Dec 2011 at 02:16 UTC by steve Share This

The holidays are here and it's time once again to count down the top 10 Christmas ideas for robot geeks! There's so much fun and interesting robot stuff out there, it's hard to choose. To help narrow things down, we've settled on a "buy local" theme this year. So we'll be paying special attention to products that are made by individuals and small companies within the robotics community. As for the final selection and order of our list, if you've been reading for a few years, you know the drill. It's thoroughly unscientific. founding editors, steve, Rog-a-Matic, and The Swirling Brain put their heads together and come up with whatever crazy robot gift ideas strike their fancy. The Top 10 are presented in ascending order of geeky awesomeness as determined by the dart board of collaborative subjectiveness. Ready? Click the read more link to get started!

As always we'll try to present items in a pretty wide range of prices including a few that are inexpensive but The Swirling Brain would like to offer a Scrooge disclaimer to ponder as you read this year's list:

Merry Christmas! I'm an old robot builder guy and I love getting robot stuff for Christmas. I hope you do too! But robotics is an expensive hobby. I'm not really complaining, but I'm warning you that if you don't have the bucks then stop and run away now! If you want to have fun, you have to have the money! Nothing fun in life is free, right? ;-) Don't let ghost from Christmas past call you a scrooge! You'll have to be a little generous if you expect to get a decent robotic gift.

With that warning, let's start our countdown:

10 - Robot Sculpture ($200 - $10,000)

What robot afficianado wouldn't want to have a beautiful, hand made robot sculpture in their home or office, to announce to everyone what a complete robot geek they are? Well, you're in luck. Artists everywhere appreciate the unique appeal of robots in art. Steve says:

I love robot art. I have a vintage "Mechanical Mighty Robot" metal sign hanging above my desk at the office and robot art from 1940's pulp magazines at home. I've even tried creating a few found object robot sculptures myself. Mine aren't for sale but we've found a few well-known real artists who do have some excellent robot sculpture ready for the art-saavy Christmas robot buyer. Buying one will not only be an art investment that will likely appreciate in value but you'll be helping to fund local artists.

Photo of Nick & Nora, robots by Gordon Bennett

9 - Arduino Microcontroller ($30 - $60)

The Arduino continues to be the most popular microcontroller around for robotics hobbyists and DIY people of all sorts. The Arduino is an Open Hardware microcontroller that uses the Free Software GNU gcc tool chain. That means the underlying design is free (as in freedom) from top to bottom, hardware to software. You can use an Arduino in your project directly or use the Arduino design as a point of departure for your own hardware design. The Arduino boards originated in Italy as a fork of the Wiring Platform hardware design, another Open Hardware project. From there it has spread all over the world and evolved into several models. Most Arduinos use the Atmel AVR CPUs but newer models user ARM CPUs and continue to become more powerul. There are dozens of add-on boards, called shields, that provide additional I/O, sensors, and other features that expand the capabilities of the Arduino. Best of all, they're inexpensive and fun to play with. If you're on a tight budget, try the Arduino Uno, which usually goes for around $30. If you're feeling like a big spender try the Arduino Mega (about $60). Image of Arduino Mega by flickr user Dam

8 - Handmade Robot Crafts ($15-$700)

If you're not up for buying an expensive robot sculpture, almost as good would be a smaller, less expensive piece of handmade robot craftwork. Sites like Etsy abound with locally made, creative, robot-themed gifts. Many are one-of-kind. One of our favorites from last year, the steampunk robot pendants, are still available this year, as are the somewhat creepy Robots and Religion ear rings. New for this year is the super awesome Roc'em Soc'em Robot Ukulele (aka the Robolele), pictured above. Rog-a-Matic says:

It's that time of year and you need something to perk up that drab bottle of Merlot sitting on your counter. How about a whimsical robot-headed cork puller. A breathalyser port would have been a cool option, but no dice. Maybe next year's model. Pour your newly opened bottle into these robot love wine glasses. And how about a Dalek themed wine bottle koozie bag. Protect your wine from extermination with an authentic Cult of Skaro styled Dalek!

The range of robot items this year is just amazing. Etsy crafters have gone robot mad! robot clocks,robot prints, robot rings, robot Christmas cards, handpainted robot shoes, robot bow ties, robot soap, robot mouse pads, robot mugs, robot pillows, robot note cards, Robot Hoodies, robot pasties, robot pint glasses. Well, you get the idea. The link below will take you to over 14,000 interesting robot artifacts.

7 - Pololu 3pi Robot ($112)

This marks the third year that Pololu's 3pi robot has shown up in our top 10 list. It's more surprising each year that no one, even Pololu, is shipping a better overall starter robot yet. But while we're waiting for the 3pi Version 2.0 (or the 4pi?), we still think this is the best you can do right now if you want to buy an assembled, easily programmable, general purpose starter robot. It lacks wheel encoders and has limited sensors but its faults are far outweighed by its features. It's so easy to program, using freely available open source tools, that you can literally be writing code for it within minutes after opening the box (okay a complete beginner might take an hour or so to get things going but it's really easy). The processor is an Atmel AVR, so it's remarkably similar to the Arduino. If you want the whole story, check out 2009 review of the 3pi. Don't forget to order the USB programmer, you'll need one of those.

If you're curious, the company name is pronounced PO-LO-LOO. It was founded in 2000 by MIT students to sell an IR beacon system for the MIT 6.270 Autonomous Robot Design Competition. For the first couple of year, they ran the company out of their dorm. In 2002, they moved to Las Vegas and opened an office. The Las Vegas Robotics Club meets at the Pololu offices.

6- Membership in a local robot group or hackerspace ($50 - $1200)

What better gift for any robot builder than a place to go where they can hang out with like-minded friends? Once again this year, we recommend buying a membership for your robot geek in a local robot club or hackerspace (or both!). If you live in or near a major city, there's probably a group nearby. Robot clubs tend to be relatively inexpensive, usually less than $100/year. Hackerspaces often cost a bit more, sometimes $50 to $100 per month (just think of it as a health club membership for your brain). This is also a great way to combine your interest in robotics with community interest and participation. Most groups take part in community events at museums and schools. Robot clubs and hackerspaces are often a source of volunteers to mentor school robotics teams. Don't just sit at home and play with robots, get out and make the world a better place (while you play with robots)!

5 - VEX Robotics Design System kit ($300 - $550)

VEX Robotics, a subsidiary of Innovation First International, might be getting too big to call a small company but they're still very involved in the robotics community, in schools, local hackerspaces, and robot clubs like the Dallas Personal Robotics Group. Their continued involvement at the local level plus their continual improvement of the VEX robotics line of products swayed us toward selecting them as the recommended building kit for this year's list. They offer a variety of kits, called Starter Bundles, that are ideal for homebrew robot builders. You can opt for the high end kits that include controllers and sensors or just use the VEX hardware to build a chassis for your homebrew robot. Either way you'll end up with a pretty robust robot chassis. These kits have been field tested by thousand of High School students in the VEX Robotics Competitions so you know they're not going to fall part under stress. The Swirling Brain says:

The quick and easy Christmas solution is to buy a generalized robotic kit and that would make most any robot builder happy. By generalized I mean that it's a kit that could be built into any robot of your imagination. You can build a working robot with these kits but expect it to take some time and skill. Expect to give such a kit to an older teen or young adult.

4 - The R-50 Zeno Humanoid Robot by Hanson Robotics

It's traditional around here to include one item on each year's Christmas list that we know is completely unobtainable by the average hobbyist, yet is so cool we also know everyone wishes they could have one. It's that one thing that, if there's a Santa Claus, we really wish he'd drop off at our house on his way through town. Last year it was the $400,000 Willow Garage PR2 robot. Santa totally blew it on that one so we tried to scale back at least a little this year and wish for the R-50 Zeno Robokind from Hanson Robotics. Zeno is only $14,500 and for just $4,425 more you can get a three year extended warranty covering accidental damage and servo replacements. Surely Santa can swing that!

The R-50 Zeno is a sturdy little humanoid robot with the sort of head you'd expect from Hanson Robotics - it pushes the limits of the Uncanny Valley. Not as human-like as Hanson's full-size heads but very expressive. There are actually three heads available: Geo, the non-human head with a blank, non-expressive face; Alice, fully expressive and the most life-like of the lot; and the one we favor, Zeno, fully expressive and a weird mix of human-like and creepy. Zeno is like a toy come to life. Honestly, I'd hate to wake up at night and find Zeno staring at me but at the same time it's just too cool.

Rog-A-Matic suggests that as long as we're wishing for unobtainable things we throw in a Parallax QuadRover ground robot. That way, Zeno has his own ride for only another $3500. I'm thinking that warranty for Zeno is a must if we go this route! Rog-A-Matic says:

The Parallax QuadRunner offers this 90 pound, 4-wheeled robotic platform driven by a 2.5HP 4-stroke engine. The system runs on Parallax's unique Propeller controller and a hydraulic system, so this is not your run-of-the-mill toy robot. Quadrover can move along up to 12mph and comes with a remote control. Ports are available for GPS, accelerometer and other devices. Free Shipping!

3 - Robot Component Gift Certificates ($anything you want to pay)

More than likely your robot geek needs a few parts to finish that next robot. We can't tell you which part exactly. There are lots of small companies that specialize in strange and interesting components that every robot builder needs: microcontrollers, gearboxes, motors, sensors, batteries. It's so hard to choose - but you can avoid making the wrong choice by using the tried and true method of the gift certificate. This is such a great option that it actually topped our 2010 list in the number 1 position. Here are a few recommendations that we feel sure any robot builder would love to find in their stocking Christmas morning:

2 - Robot Builder's Bonanza, Fourth Edition by Gordon McComb ($30.00)

We always have at least one book on the Christmas list and this year it's Gordon McComb's latest edition of the Robot Builder's Bonanza. This is in our opinion the best hobby robotics book to be released in 2011. We have a full review of it coming up in the near future but for now, take our word for it; any robot builder will find something to appreciate in this book! Steve says:

When I first joined a local hobby robot group in 1992 there weren't many hobby robot books around. One of the first I got my hands on was the first edition of Robot Builder's Bonanza by Gordon McComb. Sure, looking back, it wasn't perfect. A few of the circuits in the book didn't seem to work as described (though that may have been our inexperience). But it was chock full inspirational ideas and made a great starting place. As time went on, more and more robot books appeared but a new edition of Robot Builder's Bonanza would occasional crop up too, incorporating new ideas and technology. The fourth edition is an encyclopedic textbook of everything a potential robot builder will need to know. How do I solder? How do I cut plastic? How do I attach wheels to motors? How do I integrate kit components with my own design? How can I make a circuit board? What about batteries? Legs vs tracks? Servo vs Stepper? Which microcontroller? You'll advance beyond the information contained in this book eventually but I can't think of a better place from which a beginner could start.

1 - MakerBot Thing-O-Matic Kit w/Stepstruder MK7 ($1099 4-5 week lead time)

The MakerBot Thing-O-Matic is the current state of the art for Open Hardware 3D printers. With the new 1.75mm stepstruder, you can print higher resolution objects than with any other currently available Open Hardware 3D printer. The Thing-O-Matic also has the largest build envelope (which determines the maximum size of object that can be printed). It's not inexpensive and there's currently about a one month lead time, so don't expect to wrap it and put it under the tree. But even if it arrives a few weeks after Christmas, your robot geek will definitely thank you for this gift. MakerBot Industries was founded by Bre Pettis, Adam Mayer, and Zach Smith. Smith, an NYC Resistor member, was also a founding member of the RepRap Research Foundation, another group working on Open Hardware for 3D printing but with a focus on self-replication. The Swirling Brain says:

To build a Robot Skeleton, you could buy a bunch of hardware at a home improvement center. However, if you want to impress, then get a 3D Printer to print plastic parts for the robot. That's what I really want and I'm sure it will make many a robotic builder happy! Don't forget to include a roll of plastic filament with this gift or their 3D printer may sit there a while unuseable. If you can't afford the 3D printer then give a gift certificate to Shapeways who will print out their objects for them. Cash for Shapeways is always welcome!

Finally, Rog-A-Matic insists we include one last stocking stuffer idea: The Futuristic Robot USB HUB. It's not handmade or a community project; it's most likely mass-produced in China. But hey, it's only $15 and Rog thinks it's worthy of a mention because:

What robot enthusiast has enough USB ports??? Ding ding ding!! None, zero, zilch, the null set. This little guy will bring a tear of joy to any robot lover's eye every time they sit down at their computer. Four USB 2.0 ports disguised as wheels give this hub its functionality while its form provides unlimited awesomeness.

That's the end of our 2011 Christmas list but we'd like to remind you that it's all in fun and you're welcome to post your own favorite robot gift ideas or tell us where we went wrong. And The Swirling Brain would like to leave you with some of his Swirling Christmas Wisdom:

Most Importantly, always remember to seek Peace on Earth and Good Will towards Men. Try your best this year to show love and hope to this world that sometimes equates robotics with everything evil and death. Try to show them that robots are useful and can be helpful and healing. Try to promote good uses for robotics such as healthcare robotics or helping robotics rather than war and death robotics. OK, I'll get off my soapbox, but I think it's especially important at Christmas time to remember Christ's gift of salvation and share the gift of good will and peace.

I'll second The Swirling Brain's hopes that we see more peaceful uses of robotics in the coming year. And, just in case you didn't see anything on this year's list that you like, check out some of our lists from previous years for even more robot gift ideas:

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