Robot Gift Guide 2016

A dozen robots that we promise will make fantastic holiday gifts

Images: Parrot; Robotis; Kamagami; Fotokite; Anki; Sphero
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Welcome to the fifth edition of our annual Robot Gift Guide! This year, we bring you a dozen robots that we think will make fantastic holiday gifts. Just as we’ve done in the past (for a quick trip through recent robotics history, check out the 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015 editions), this year’s selection includes mostly new products released in 2016 but also some items from previous years that we still like. We tested many of these bots ourselves, and you might have seen our in-depth reviews here on the blog. And while we provide prices and links to places where you can buy these items, we’re not endorsing any in particular, and a little bit of searching may result in better deals (all prices are in U.S. dollars). Lastly, if you think we missed the best robot thing (or things) of the year, let us know in the comments.

  1. Fotokite Phi

Photography drones don’t get much easier, safer, or cheaper than this: The Fotokite Phi, which comes from drone researchers at ETH Zurich and had a successful Indiegogo campaign last year, is now available to everyone for $250 (GoPro not included). As its name suggests, the Fotokite is attached to you by a physical leash, so you don’t have to worry about controlling it while it flies—you hold the leash and the drone follows you.


  1. Anki Cozmo

At first, we were skeptical that Anki’s Cozmo would be able to really hold our interest, but after talking with its developers, it sounds like it’s going to have some very impressive capabilities for such a little guy, along with an SDK that’s designed to give you full access to a surprising amount of intelligence and autonomy. Our advice: Get one for a kid in your life, and then steal it to play with yourself after they go to bed.



  1. iRobot Roomba 960

We liked the Roomba 980 when we reviewed it earlier this year, and the more recent 960 is a very minor step down in features that will save you $200. You still get the visual SLAM mapping, multi-room cleaning, and app connectivity, and the fact that the 960 has a smaller battery and will need to recharge more frequently doesn’t matter all that much since it’ll pick up right where it left off. If $700 is still too steep, we can also recommend the not fancy at all but still totally decent Roomba 650, which is frequently on sale for under $300.

$700 $600 (until Dec. 3)


  1. Neato Botvac Connected

Lasers make every robot one million times better at doing everything, and vacuums are no exception. A lidar sensor lets Neato’s robots map your house and vacuum efficiently in nice straight lines; basically, it’s like a little autonomous car that drives around your living room cleaning stuff so that you don’t have to. If you’re looking for a less expensive model, the Neato Botvac D3 is only $400, with the sacrifice of some battery capacity and a side brush (laser included!).



  1. Kamigami

Born out of research at UC Berkeley, Kamigami is the absolute fastest flat-pack mostly cardboard hexapedal app-controlled indestructible robot bug on the market right now. It’s quick and easy to build yourself without any tools, and comes with a smartphone app that allows multiple robots to play games with each other, and also provides a simple programming environment. Little legged robots like these are still inspiring active research, but they’re definitely designed for consumers, with the kind of durability that means they can be thrown off a roof without taking any damage.



  1. Robotis Play 700

Last year, Robotis introduced its Play 600 kit, which lets kids build simple robotic creatures powered by a motorized gearbox. The new Play 700 kit, released this year, uses the same colored plastic pieces and rivets, which are easy and fun to assemble, but it adds a more advanced controller whose program kids can modify. Now young roboticists (the kit is designed for ages 8+) can build a scorpion bot, a windmill, or a racecar, among other things, and change their behaviors using a smartphone and Robotis’ R+PLAY700 iOS or Android app.  


  1. Hummingbird Robotics Kit

Created by Carnegie Mellon spinoff BirdBrain Technologies, the Hummingbird is a really easy to use and program controller board for getting started with robotics. The greatest thing about it is that you can easily connect components like sensors, actuators, and LEDs by inserting wires into special connectors on the board, no soldering required. The Hummingbird Duo Premium Kit includes four hobby servos, two dc gear motors
, single- and tri-color
 LEDs, and a bunch of sensors. To program the board, you can use CREATE, a visual programming software, or the Arduino IDE.


Birdbrain Technologies

  1. Double 2

I didn’t think I would like Double’s newest telepresence robot, but I was wrong. Mobile data might not quite be up to the task of letting you wander around absolutely anywhere for absolutely anywhere else (yet), but in many situations, Double is an effective way of giving you an embodied presence in a place that you can’t be otherwise. It’s surprisingly easy to drive, and once you get past the novelty, it feels as much like being there as you can without being there. The caveat here (and it’s a big one) is that you’ll need your own iPad for the robot to work. 



  1. Parrot Disco FPV Kit

Flying Parrot’s Disco drone is an enormous amount of fun, and it’s one of the best ways to get into fixed-wing FPV drones there is. Like all of Parrot’s drones, the Disco takes care of most of the hard parts of flying for you, and once you get the hang of the hand-launched takeoff, the drone is very hard to destroy, even if you land it badly over and over. And over. At $1,300, we thought it was a little expensive initially, but Parrot has now dropped the price to $1,000, which is much more reasonable, considering that it comes with Parrot’s fancy Skycontroller 2, along with a headset that will turn your phone into a VR display. We also still like Parrot’s other (cheaper) drones, including the $300 AR Drone 2.0 and the $500 Bebop 2.


  1. Flybrix

Now that someone has done this, it seems so obvious: A modular kit that you can use to make drones out of Legos. Endless potential for customization combined with a structure that can be easily destroyed and rebuilt just as easily. We haven’t tried one of these out for ourselves, so we’re not sure how durable and easy to use it is in practice, but we definitely like the idea. The basic kit is $190, but we prefer having a physical controller as opposed to an app.


  1. Sphero SPRK+

Better Bluetooth and an improved app help keep Sphero’s already excellent robotic ball up to date. Sphero’s robots are waterproof and shockproof, since everything fragile is sealed up inside of a clear plastic shell. It’s a fun toy, but the latest SPRK+ model is intended to be educational as well, with lots of STEM-focused programming activities that you can access through the app. 



  1. Ghost Robotics’ Minitaur

Finally, if you’re willing to splurge this year, there’s no better way to spend ten grand than on Ghost Robotics’ Minitaur direct-drive quadruped robot. What can it do? The real question is, what can’t it do: It can walk, run, jump, bounce up and down, do flips and rolls, and even open doors. You’ll get a hand-built, fully-assembled Minitaur, a remote control, and the satisfaction of being one of the first on your block to have a four-legged pet robot.


Ghost Robotics

For more tech gift ideas, check out also 
IEEE Spectrum’s annual Gift Guide

Robot Gift Guide 2016

The Robot Revolution Comes to Synthetic Biology

Automation allows thousands of possibilities when building weird new organisms

Photo: Ginkgo Bioworks

Last month, synthetic biologists at
Ginkgo Bioworks raised their glasses—filled with genetically modified beer—to cele­brate the launch of a new automated lab. By applying engineering principles to biology, and with the help of some nifty robotic equipment, Ginkgo has created a factory for churning out exotic life-forms, the likes of which have never before been seen on this planet.

The home brew they were drinking was an example of the potential applications of synthetic biology, a new field that builds on recent progress in genetic assembly methods. Scientists can now manufacture snippets of synthetic DNA and slip them into organisms, giving those critters strange capabilities. For example, the brewer’s yeast used to make the beer for the launch party had genes from an orange tree added to its own DNA. During the fermentation stage of the brewing process, those genes caused the yeast to produce ­valencene, an organic compound with a citrusy flavor. Speaking scientifically, it was delicious.

Ginkgo Bioworks, a hip young company based in Boston, recently raised US $100 million on the promise of finding many such useful applications for synthetic biology. It used some of that cash to build Bioworks2, the company’s vast new lab that uses robotic systems to form an assembly line for organisms.

Ginkgo needs to make microbes on a grand scale in order to find those that can function as tiny biological factories for its customers. Many of the altered organisms will be duds, but through highly organized trial and error, the bioengineers will eventually devise a microbe that turns out a desired substance—like a chemical ingredient used for perfumes, beverages, pesticides, or laundry detergents.

The company’s business model centers on the microbes themselves, not the end products. “We’re not in the business of manufacturing chemicals, flavors, or fragrances,” explains Ginkgo creative director Christina Agapakis. “We specialize in the organisms, and we partner with our customers, who will make the product.” Ginkgo licenses organisms to its customers, she says, and gets royalties if they’re used.

But building an organism to spec is no easy task. Genetics still isn’t well understood; there’s no universal catalog of genes that details each one’s characteristics. Even if researchers know what a particular gene does in an orange tree, for example, when they add it to a yeast cell, it might interact with the native DNA in unexpected ways. If they’re adding several genes from different species to that yeast cell, things get even more complicated.

That’s why Ginkgo takes an engineering approach to biology, applying a rigorous design-build-test cycle to the creation of living organisms. The new lab’s extreme automation is critical to this approach, says Patrick Boyle, ­Ginkgo’s head of organism design. “In grad school, I might have taken my five best ideas and tried them out,” Boyle says. “Here we take our 1,000 best ideas, try them all out, and see which works best.”

To understand how this works in practice, take Ginkgo’s first efforts in the perfume business. The company is working with the French fragrance maker Robertet on a yeast that spits out rose oil, because extracting the substance from rose petals is expensive.

Design: Ginkgo designers search the scientific literature looking for genes that would cause the yeast to produce useful enzymes. The aim: When the designers feed sugar to the yeast, these enzymes should cause it to carry out chemical reactions that ultimately result in rose oil. But there is a dizzying array of genes and enzymes to consider. “If you have 100 possible enzymes that can serve as a step in a four-step pathway, that’s a lot of design space to explore,” Boyle says.

Build: Ginkgo outsources the actual manufacturing of synthetic DNA. When a batch of manufactured DNA arrives at Ginkgo, liquid-handling robots build the new organisms by adding the various snippets to yeast cells. “During my Ph.D., I spent a lot of time moving tiny amounts of fluid around,” says creative director Agapakis. “When we started Ginkgo, a lot of the robots looked like eight-armed grad students—there were a lot of pipettes.” The process has ramped up as these robots have gotten more capable. Ginkgo now has liquid-handling robots that quickly move nanoliters of fluid using targeted pulses of sound.

Test: Once the robots have created a thousand yeast variants containing different mashups of genes, it’s time to see if the cells are making their rose oil. Mass spectrometry machines crack open the cells and examine all the molecules inside, checking for the product and also determining whether the yeast is healthy. But success on both counts doesn’t necessarily mean the organism will meet the customer’s needs. Boyle says that in the case of rose oil, Gingko studies each yeast’s overall “fragrance profile.” While a cell may be making certain useful fragrance molecules, it may be making others that are not. “I like the fresh-baked-bread smell, but it’s not great when you’re trying to sell a perfume,” Boyle says.

Scale Up: Ginkgo adds one extra step to the typical engineering cycle, since a modified yeast cell that looks like a winner in the lab might not perform as well in the customer’s fermentation vats. In one corner of the lab, robotic systems fill and monitor rows of benchtop bioreactors, using a variety of sensors to watch the processes inside.

If even their best oil-producing yeast isn’t up to spec, the company’s organism designers go back to the drawing board, using the results of the experiment to inform their next 1,000 best guesses. One of these days, Ginkgo’s bioengineers say, they’ll make the perfect batch—one that comes out smelling like a rose.

The Robot Revolution Comes to Synthetic Biology

Raytheon Sets Phasers to Drone Destruction with Directed Energy Weapon Test

Raytheon’s Phaser microwave weapons system can fry swarms of drones at long range

Photo: U.S. Army Fires Center of Excellence

There are all kinds of creative ways of dealing with rogue drones: Radio jamming. Other drones with nets. Trained eagles. None of these are really designed to handle military drones, however, and large, fast-moving UAVs are still a potential threat, especially if more than one is coming at you at once. It’s no surprise that the U.S. Army has been developing solutions for this potential threat— we’re not sure what they’re working on now, but as of late 2013, Raytheon was successfully testing a long range, high power directed microwave weapon capable of taking out swarms of drones in milliseconds.

The Phaser is essentially a high powered microwave (HPM) cannon that runs on a diesel engine. Exactly how powerful this thing is (and what its range is) is still classified, but we do know that it can be tuned to either “disrupt” or “damage,” where for most drones, “damage” seems to be synonymous with “destroy.” It’s also effective against cars and other vehicles, and almost anything else that wouldn’t work properly without functioning electronics.

No matter how heavily cooked you like your drones, microwaves can achieve the desired effect in milliseconds, which is a major advantage of the Phaser over laser weapons: lasers typically require several seconds to burn through a target, and it’s very difficult to keep them focused on a small, fast moving, and far away point for that amount of time. One commonality that all directed energy systems have is their very low cost of operation, which is in the range of cents per firing, far cheaper than either projectile weapons or missiles.

Raytheon has plenty of experience with microwave weapons; they’ve been working on a non-lethal anti-human “Active Denial System” (ADS) for over a decade. From 250 meters away, the ADS can gently heat the water just under your skin with millimeter-wave radiation, making anyone standing in the beam feel like they’re on fire. The feeling stops as soon as you get out of the beam, and there are otherwise no physical consequences. As of 2015, the U.S. Air Force was looking at mounting ADS systems on AC-130 gunships as a non-lethal crowd control option.

We’re not entirely sure what the current status of the Phaser is, although Raytheon told Aviation Week
that the system is now half the size it was in the 2013 test and could be ready for operational deployment in less than two years. At the rate drone technology is evolving and drone population is expanding, it seems likely that there will be a serious need for it by then.

Raytheon Sets Phasers to Drone Destruction with Directed Energy Weapon Test