It just wouldn't be Christmas without our annual top 10 list of the best Christmas gifts in the world for your favorite robot geek. Our three founding editors, steve, Rog-a-Matic, and The Swirling Brain spend most of the year on their in-depth analysis of robot gifting trends; processing mountains of statistical data and comparing thousands of robot components, all to present you with the most complete and accurate list of the best possible robot-related gifts. Or at least that's what they'd like you to think. Actually the selection process involves some late night Googling and a cup of really hot tea (the brownian motion used to prime the robot gift improbability generator). Anyway, our regular readers know how it works by now. A list of the ten best robot gifts we can think of for 2012, in ascending order of predicted roboticist desirability. Read on to see the list!
10. Build-A-Robot ($32)
For the first time, we've decided to add an item that might appeal to the very youngest roboticist in your family. But that's not to say that the older robot builders won't take an interest. Rog-a-matic says,
"Back in MY DAY we had Mr Potato Head. Start with a potato then add eyes, mouth, hats, etc - sort of a preschool introduction to genetic mutations. Nowdays kids can do the same sort of experimentation with Build-A-Robot. Recycled wood construction."
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. Most Arduinos use the Atmel AVR CPUs but newer models user ARM CPUs and continue to become more powerful. 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 classic Arduino Uno, which usually goes for around $30. If you're feeling like a big spender try the Arduino Mega (about $60), or the new super-powerful Arduino Due (about $50). Rog-A-Matic also recommends O'Reilly's Arduino Cookbook by Michael Margolis($25):
"Arduino controller boards are a big hit with robot builders due to their simplicity, affordability and community support. This book explores the design and building of real-world interfaces including sensor programming, actuator interfacing, communications and more using the Arduino controller."
You can find Arduinos everywhere these days but here are a few of our favorite vendors:
Wait, didn't we just recommend the Arduino? How can we recommend two different microcontrollers?! Easy, the Raspberry Pi has a powerful ARM processor and 512MB of RAM. It can run GNU/Linux, the same software that runs everything from desktop computers to the most powerful supercomputers. The Arduinos are great for low-level I/O, things like managing sensors and servos. If you're interested in developing some high-level AI for your robot, the Raspberry Pi is what you want. Running ROS and OpenCV on top of GNU/Linux, you can do some amazing things. If you're our age, this board is orders of magnitude more powerful than your first desktop PC was. Like the Arduino, the Raspberry Pi is open hardware, allowing you make your own boards or use their designs as the starting point for something new. The makers tout a $25 price tag but we've found the real world prices are a bit higher, usually in the $35 to $65 range.
So, you've got a Raspberry Pi or some other GNU/Linux controller on your robot, and now you're ready to connect a camera and give your robot the gift of vision. We'll assume you've already got all the hardware you need. OpenCV is a great vision library, licensed as free software, and compatible with GNU/Linux as well as ROS, the Robot Operating System that's rapidly becoming the open standard among robot builders. OpenCV can be used in a variety of ways and in several languages. Two of the most popular are C (or C++) and Python. Now you could just download the libraries and figure it all out for yourself. But why not make it easy with a book or two? Here's what The Swirling Brain recommends:
"In the more advanced level, what robot would be complete without computer vision? Intel some time ago opened up and released many computer vision algorithms. Your mission is to figure out how to use them. These two books explain just how to use them to get up and going with computer vision."
Your robot doesn't have enough sensors. Sensing and interacting with your environment is a critical part of intelligence. Did you know that amoebas and other single-celled organisms are loaded with sensors? They can sense light, moisture, touch, temperature, electrical currents, acceleration, magnetic fields, angular velocity gradients, and even detect various chemical compounds. What can your robot sense? Not enough, that's for sure. Any autonomous robot hoping to live up to its name, is always in need of a few more sensors. Where can you find a few good sensors? Here's what Rog-A-Matic has to say:
"The PLX-90 sensor sampler kit is a bag full of robotic fun for those building and programming their own custom robots using Parallax's Basic Stamp or other microcontrollers. The kit includes a sonar range finder, compass, Motion detector, force-sensing resistors and more."
Don't let your robot be outsmarted by an amoeba, grab some new sensors and upgrade your bot today!
Once again this year, we'd like to point out that many online robot component vendors offer gift certificates. So when you just can't think of what that special roboticist in your life needs, this is a good backup plan. We promise you that every robot builder needs a few more parts to finish that next robot. A robot gift certificate will make any robot builder happy.
We always include that one amazing gift that we know we'll never get. This year it's the KURATAS from Suidobashi Heavy Industry. It's big, can reach speeds of 10 kph, has rocket launchers, and smile-activated twin gatling guns (as the video says, "be careful not to cause a shooting spree by smiling too much"), and you can even operate it remotely from a smartphone when you're not inside it. You can customize the weapons and pick your favorite color scheme. Sure, the base price of $1.3 million USD seems a little steep but where else are you going to get a giant, battle-ready robot exoskeleton with all those features?
The 3D printer was the number 1 item on our 2011 list. It narrowly missed making number one this year too. We still think this is an excellent gift idea if you can afford it. Steve says:
"The latest Makerbot Replicator 2 and MakerGear M2 3D printers are getting close to inexpensive off-the-shelf appliances that anyone can use. I expect in another year or two 3D printers will be just another everyday household item like a microwave or dishwasher that everyone (not just geeks) have in their house. You don't realize how useful they are until you have one around. We have probably a dozen 3D printers of different types at our local hackerspace and we're constantly using them not just to print parts for geeky projects like robots, but common items like replacement faceplates and knobs for equipment, and for craft items like cookie cutters and jewelry. Even a low resolution 3D printer can be pretty useful."
And The Swirling Brain has this to say about 3D printers:
"Getting past the prefab kits, means you have to fab your own parts. A 3D printer in reach of the masses is the makerbot. Yes, there's probably cheaper 3D printers out there but makerbot is probably the most famous of them all and a good starting place for making 3D parts. The new Replicator2 puts out some impressive parts too! Much better than the older maker bots."
We here are robots.net are always partial to hardware and software that respects a user's freedom, so we naturally favor open source 3D printers on principle. But we have to mention the newer, higher resolution Makerbot Replicator 2. Even though it's proprietary and not open hardware like their previous printers, it's still worth considering if you need the added resolution. We listed some very high quality open source alternatives as well.
1. Membership in local robot group or hackerspace ($40 - $1200)
Topping our list this year is another returning idea, membership in a robot group. What better gift for any robot builder than a place to go where they can hang out with like-minded friends? Every major city has at least one 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 but this covers 24/7 use of project space and professional quality tools like 3D printers and laser CNC machines (think of a hackerspace as a health club membership for your brain and it doesn't seem so expensive!). Groups are also a good way to help your community. Most groups take part in community events at museums and schools. Robot clubs and hackerspaces are also 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)! Every one of your three humble robots.net editors, steve, Rog-A-Matic, and The Swirling Brain have been a member of one or more groups and in some cases an officer or founder of groups like these. So, trust us, we know what we're talking about on this one.
Well, that about wraps it up for another year. But we'll leave you with a few random stocking stuffers that didn't make the list. The Swirling Brain thinks you might want to check out the Doctor Who keychain set over at Thinkgeek, one of which is a red Dalek that doubles as a flashlight. As a tea drinker, Steve prefers Thinkgeek's robot tea infuser. Rog-A-Matic thinks you might want to consider some Wallcandy Arts robot wallpaper for your robot lab. And if you still haven't had enough or you need more idea than we've come up with this year, you can always take a look at the Top 10 Robot Gift lists of Christmas' past: