Robotics Cubed: Building Engineers Real Young

Robotics technology for kids used to mean Erector sets or remote control R2-D2 figures. Today, children experience Cubelets from Boulder-based Modular Robotics. Resembling small Rubik’s Cubes—about the size of a Cutie orange—Cubelets link together magnetically like Duplo Lego bricks to create mini-robots.

Each Cubelet is a little computer unto itself, and comes in three categories.  Black Sense Cubelets respond to input like temperature, distance, or light. Multi-colored Think Cubelets block data, act like smart bricks, and work to minimize, maximize or invert data from their Sense siblings. Cubelets that drive, rotate, and create sound and light are clear with no color, and fall in the action category.  The basic building block for all creations is the rechargeable Battery Cubelet, which takes months to drain.

Designed for ages four and up, these robotic building blocks were developed for kids to easily create structures that can move in all directions, resist bumping into walls, flash an LED light and chirp like tropical birds.

Recently, my ten-year-old twin boys glanced at the five simple direction cards and twenty cube choices. An hour later, they developed creatures named “Moving Lighthouse,” “Snake Train,” “Cargo Ship Carousel,” and the aero-inept “Heli-plane”—voted Most Awesome-est creation.

The combinations seem endless, but the website offers robot suggestions such as a motion activated alarm light, a creature that warns you when your fridge gets too warm, and a lighthouse that knows to come on in the dark. And if that doesn’t scratch your infant’s itch, recent add-ons to the line include a pack of brick adapters for Lego integration, and a Bluetooth cube that connects to your PC or mobile device. This enables the user to re-program a Cubelet or create a monitoring device or remote control.

My engineer husband deemed them a great way to introduce kids to pre-programming concepts. He found the in-depth product explanations and descriptions on the website helpful.

As a parent who resides in the Bermuda Triangle of technology, I was daunted by the lack of instructions included in the kit, and by much of the literature I encountered on the website.  The original kits were sold to hobbyists, schools, and museums, but as they become accessible to a wide consumer base, Modular Robotics may want to offer more user-friendly documentation for the non-engineer parent.

They say four year olds can use Cubelets, and I suspect that most preschoolers could concoct simple structures with minimal coaching. However, I recommend that Cubelet playdates for smaller children be highly supervised. The cubes are magnetic, and licking or chewing could end badly. One of my main worries was durability, with Cubelets toppling over regularly onto the table during my kids’ construction attempts. I was glad to discover that there’s a one year warranty, as I’m certain that if my boys had gotten their hands on Cubelets when they were four, we would need it.

Available at ModRobotics.com, the twenty-piece KT01 kit ($519.95) and six-piece starter KT06 ($159.95) help introduce invention and creativity at a young age—vital 21st century skill sets. I’m hoping my children will start saving their allowance for the full kit; a Cubelet version of “The Jetsons” cartoon character “Rosie the Maid” robot would make a great birthday gift for mom.

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