The Best Robot Kits of 2020
If you're looking to get your kids started with robotics, then we recommend the LEGO Boost Creative Toolbox above just about anything else. This kit starts slow, guiding you through simple projects that increase in complexity until you've made some truly impressive creations. The block-based graphical coding interface is intuitive and easy to use and the Boost Creative Toolbox comes with clear and detailed directions for assembling each of the 5 main models. It's a very approachable kit even for complete beginners, inspiring confidence in young roboticists as they advance and unlock more levels. This kit does a great job of blending both structured play and leaving plenty of spots for creative expression. The Boost platform doesn't require nor assume any previous electronics knowledge and makes troubleshooting easy, all while offering plenty of chances to expand with additional LEGO products once you have exhausted the 60+ activities included in this set alone. Those activities range from building a robot sheriff with a shoulder-mounted rocket launcher to an automated factory that makes miniature LEGO creations.
The design and structured activities of the Boost Creative Toolbox are fantastic for beginners but they are geared towards kids a bit on the younger side, with the cutesy design of the Boost projects losing some of their appeal to older middle schoolers. You also might find your students outgrowing the Boost's hardware over time because there are fewer options for expanding the capabilities of this product with additional actuators or motors than non-LEGO based kits. Don't get us wrong, the Boost Creative Toolbox is one of our all-time favorite robot kits for kids. It supplies plenty of fun while being a great introduction to mechanical and software design for both kids and parents without being overly complex or frustrating.
If you are steering clear of LEGO-based robotics, then we would strongly recommend the Makeblock mBot as an introductory robotics kit. This kit gives you direct exposure to components that are commonplace even in industrial robots but in a user-friendly way that's approachable for a total novice. The step-by-step 3D instructions are easy to follow, with the app providing gamified lessons once you have the mBot built. It also comes pre-programmed with three different operating modes so you can hit the ground running the moment you finish building it.
The mBot, however, is a little less user-friendly and requires more dexterity to assemble than LEGOs or other snap-together plastic parts because it uses standard metric machine screws. Parents will probably have to help out with some of the more intricate aspects of assembly — we found ourselves wishing that some needle-nose pliers were included with this robot. It will also be a bit more difficult to customize your mBot without purchasing additional components, though you can cover quite a lot of curriculum with just its stock configuration. All in all, the mBot is a great choice if your kids are already doing LEGO robotics at school and want a change of pace, or if you want a kit that can supply a much broader base of understanding in mechatronics, provided you don't mind purchasing some add-on components and a slightly steeper learning curve.
If some of the more advanced robot kits for kids seem a little intimidating or if you want to introduce programming at the elementary school level, the Sphero Mini is one of our favorite options out there. It doesn't take a lot of technical knowledge to get started and offers a nice progression in terms of skills. You can start by controlling it remotely and then build up to writing programs to direct its actions and incorporate sensor input, such as having it stop when it hits a wall or say "Ouch" when it rolls off a drop. It packs a surprising amount of sensors into a very portable package and gives you a ton of programming power at a fairly low price.
The Sphero Mini is going to require some creativity on your part to keep your kid interested and engaged. It doesn't come with a whole lot in the package, only some miniature bowling pins and traffic cones, and there isn't a clear progression of skills laid out. This gives you ample opportunity to challenge your kids to think creatively, such as creating both a maze out of cardboard and writing a program that lets the Sphero Mini solve it, or using the canvas feature to literally paint a picture with your robot. There are plenty of activities like these available online — from both Sphero and other sources — but be aware that you are going to have to facilitate challenges like these to keep interest levels up. The Sphero Mini can take some fairly rough and tumble play but it probably won't survive a huge drop or getting stepped on — two very reasonable concerns given its size. However, this is a fantastic robot kit for kids to get them excited about computer science and coding or for anyone who is shopping on a budget or constrained by space.
If you are hoping to introduce the concept of hands-on robotics to your kids in an affordable and approachable way, then the 4M Tin Can Robot is about as good a place to start as any. This little robot relies on a repurposed drink can for the bulk of the body, which can be a good base to introduce concepts related to recycling in addition to some basic mechanical and electrical lessons. It's easy to put together in less than an hour or two and offers some opportunities for creative expression by decorating the can.
Unfortunately, there isn't much to do with this robot once it's done. It doesn't give you any way to control its motion so you are limited to it moving forward in a straight line. The only other interactive aspect is changing how the eyes and arms are posed. All other activities are going to have to come from your imagination. This robot kit is a great low-cost option that could foster an interest in robotics and let you test the water before investing in a more expensive product. However, we doubt its appeal will last exceedingly long.
If you struggle to peel your child away from their Nintendo Switch, then the Nintendo Labo - Variety Kit might be the perfect option. Nintendo created a surprisingly fun and interactive learning environment that charts out a natural progression of activities in increasing complexity, going so far as to even have built-in assessments to determine if you have been paying attention. There are clear and easy to follow directions for 5 different projects, as well as ideas on how you can expand and customize them to continue learning and playing once you have them built. Nintendo does a great job of walking you through how everything works using interactive dialogue with your virtual Labo development team. On top of all that, it also has a graphical drag-and-drop interface to introduce programming and algorithmic thinking.
While we were impressed with the Nintendo Labo overall, that doesn't mean it's without flaws. Its innovative cardboard-based construction is cool but it also means that it doesn't have the durability of plastic or metal robots. One spilled glass of water or juice could effectively ruin most of the parts and the tab and slot construction will wear out over time if you frequently assemble and disassemble your cardboard creations. You also are fairly limited in terms of further expansions since Nintendo doesn't currently make any hardware expansions and you have no way of integrating any third-party motors or sensors. Despite that, the Nintendo Labo is a solid option to get kids that are enthralled by video games interested in hands-on projects, engineering design, and programming. And if you already have a Switch system, the price is relatively low.
If you are searching for a robot kit for kids that goes well beyond programming Legos, the Makeblock mBot Ultimate 2.0 is the kit for you. This 550+ piece kit has directions for 10 different robots, including a robot tank with a gripper arm, a catapult, a walking ant, and even a camera dolly. It comes with a variety of different sensors and can be programmed with both graphical blocks or text-based coding in Python, as well as being compatible with both Arduino and Raspberry Pi. This kit is versatile enough that you could work for hundreds of hours on projects without duplicating anything. You also have plenty of potential to expand beyond what's included in the kit with add-on components from Makeblock or third-party parts off the shelf.
This kit can be very complex, however, and quite intimidating for a beginner. There are tons of small parts and it requires lots of dexterity to assemble. The documentation isn't amazing so troubleshooting can be much more difficult compared to other models. It will also take up considerable space and time to assemble projects with this, so it's not exactly a kit that you are going to pull out for a rainy afternoon and then put away an hour or two later. It's an absolutely fantastic option for more advanced kids that already have some foundational level understanding of electromechanical systems or if you are willing to invest lots of time assisting and guiding, but most beginners will be better served by other options. This kit can get you familiar with some of the same components used in college-level robotics classes, as you progress from working with kits to simply building your own robots, and can give you a good starting point for years to come,
While we generally would recommend the LEGO Boost for young robot engineers just starting, the more advanced LEGO Mindstorms EV3 also has its merits, especially if your kids are aspiring or currently participating in the FIRST Robotics LEGO League (FLL). FLL teams are common at schools around the country and the Mindstorms EV3 set gives you a headstart because it uses the same fundamental components and programming environment as the LEGO sets used in competition. Even if competing in FLL isn't the current plan, the Mindstorms EV3 is a fantastic option for older kids that might tire quickly from the activities laid out in the Boost's app or for anyone who wants a robot kit that an aspiring roboticist won't outgrow in a hurry.
Unfortunately, the Mindstorms EV3 does have a few flaws. While it is a versatile kit with plenty of potential for tons of interactive lessons and play, you are limited to LEGO products. It is also one of the most expensive kits we've have tested. We are huge fans of the Mindstorms EV3 system and programming environment, with hundreds of thousands of children getting their first taste of engineering design, robotics, and programming through FLL each year, but it can be a bit pricey for an individual to purchase knowing that you are locked into LEGO products for further expansions, which won't be cheap.
The UBTECH Jimu Buzzbot and Muttbot kit is another robotics kit that uses proprietary plastic bricks as its main construction method. Although the pin and hole components might resemble some of the other kits, the tab and slots that attach to the servos are unique to Jimu. It's a fairly easy kit to put together as long as you are careful to match up the servo orientation and their ID code to what's shown in the 3D models in the app. Once you have either the Buzzbot or the Muttbot assembled, you can use the graphical programming interface in the Jimu app to create your own routines. You also don't have to worry about being limited to these two creations since there is a library of community-created designs available through the app or you can create your own from scratch.
Unfortunately, the building method seems less friendly to little hands that might not have the most dexterity. You only have enough servos to build the Buzzbot and the Muttbot at the same time. We also feel the lack of included sensors really dampens the programming activities you can do. The JST connectors used to connect the various servos to the main hub seem to be a little delicate and we could see them becoming damaged if pulled out carelessly. All in all, this pair of robots are adorable and have impressive amounts of motion due to all the servos but we feel there are better-made bots with a much more comprehensive learning environment in the same price range.
The Elegoo Smart Robot Car V3.0 is a solid 4-wheel drive robot car that has most of the basic sensors you would want, plenty of potential for further expansions, and the ability to drive over rougher terrain than other models — it can easily handle most carpet floors. It's programmable in both Elegoo's mobile app or the Arduino development environment, as well as being compatible with a wide variety of components from third-party suppliers. The Smart Robot Car V3.0 comes programmed right out of the box for obstacle avoidance, line-following, and remote control — either from the IR remote control or the mobile app.
Unfortunately, we found that the documentation isn't the best and the printed assembly instructions are a little harder to follow. It also takes a bit more dexterity to put the Smart Robot Car together. This can be made quite a bit easier if you use some additional tools beyond what's included in the kit, such as needle-nose pliers or tweezers. The programming interface through the app is decently intuitive, but there isn't a set series of tutorials or skill progressions for you to figure easily figure things out on your own. It could be a good option for those that have previous experience with Arduino and need a robotic base platform for further experimentation or their own projects, but beginners might be better served by other 'bots.
The Sillbird STEM 12-in-1 is a very inexpensive but limited robotics kit that is powered by the sun. Its electrical system consists of a single solar panel and a motor that can be configured in up to — you guessed it — 12 different ways. These include rolling, walking, and even swimming creations, making this product a great option for young scientists and engineers that are just starting, particularly if they have an interest in renewable energy or green technology.
Although the Sillbird STEM 12-in-1 is a great option to pique a child's interest, you might find that it has a hard time maintaining it. You can't control this robot at all, no matter which of the 12 forms you build. It is limited to merely driving forward in a straight line if there is sufficient solar energy. The assembly process — particularly of the gearbox — can also be very hard, especially for kids of the age that this would most appeal too. An adult may spend more time cutting all of the pieces out of their frames and cleaning them up than a kid will spend actually playing with this product. It isn't the most intuitive to use these parts for your own creations and its inability to run without sufficient sunlight can really put a damper on creative play. It can be a low-cost starting point but you shouldn't be too surprised if it fails to inspire continued play or learning.
Why You Should Trust Us
David Wise heads up our expert team when it comes to reviewing and testing educational robotics kits. Graduating with a B. S. in Mechanical and Ocean Engineering in 2014 from MIT, David has well over a decade of robotics and hands-on STEM education experience. He worked closely with the MIT Edgerton Center while enrolled as a mentor for their engineering design workshop. There he developed curriculum through their engineering outreach program and brought it to local schools in the Boston area. More recently he became one of the co-founders and directors of the Tahoe STEM Camp, teaching hundreds of students topics ranging from remotely operated underwater vehicles to light following spider robots. He is also a coach for the local FIRST Robotics Lego League and the FIRST Tech Challenge team.
We spent dozens and dozens of hours assembling and disassembling each of these robot kits, as well as consulting with both experts and novices to get a feel for how intuitive and easy to use each product is. We also compared the different software development environments side-by-side, searching for a programming experience that was simple and reliable with a clear progression of lessons and activities. Of course, we also consulted with some budding scientists and engineers to see how fun each kit actually was and how long they captured a kid's interest — plus, how well they stood up to those kids dropping, playing, and generally abusing all of these bots.
Analysis and Test Results
While it's very difficult to directly compare some of these kits side-by-side since they cover such different topics and different students will learn different ways, we break down the salient points, pros, and cons of each model, how they compare, and what they are best at in the following sections.
Ease of Use
The first thing we considered with each kit was the amount of work it took to put together and set up the programming environment. Challenging students is one thing but frustrating them to the breaking point is an entirely different one. We awarded the most points to products that had clear and easy to follow instructions, as well as prompting you what to do with the robot once you finished. We also factored in the amount of dexterity required to assemble each robot — and the corresponding likelihood of parental assistance.
The Sphero Mini is one of the easiest overall robots to use because you don't have to assemble anything. It's small and compact, with the initial setup limited to downloading the app and charging it if necessary. You are easily ready to go to write your first program in less than 15 minutes, and the limited number of pieces making clean up a breeze. It's one of the few products that doesn't require significant chunks of time all at once, letting you squeeze in quick coding lessons throughout the day.
It's hard to beat LEGO products like the Boost Creative Toolbox and the Mindstorms EV3 when it comes to ease of assembly, helped by most kids having at least a basic familiarity with their products. The pieces snap or slide together easily even for little hands. The most difficult part of the process is usually making sure that you have the correct length cross axles, this but can be remedied by checking the different colors or the 1:1 scale image usually present in the instructions.
The Boost app is quick to install on most mobile devices and lets you get up and running right away, giving you a clear starting point and unlocking more levels and activities as you progress. However, we did find this app can be a little slow on certain devices, especially cheaper tablets.
The Mindstorms EV3 can be controlled and programmed through either the EV3 Programmer App or the companion software for Mac and PC. It also comes with a printed set of directions for your first robot. The programming interface for both LEGO robots is fairly intuitive, with graphical blocks that you drag and drop instructions into position.
The Nintendo Labo is fairly easy to put together but creasing some of the smaller tabs can be tricky so younger children might require some assistance. In terms of the companion video game, Nintendo's decades of experience with game design and in-game tutorials are readily apparent. It coaches you through the assembly process with detailed animations, as well as explaining to your budding engineer how each component works through conversations and quizzes with the in-game characters: Dr. Gerry Riggs, Plaise Allatyme, and Lerna Lotte. This trio coaches you through various activities with each Toy-Con and gives you ideas on how to further expand and customize your creations.
The Makeblock Ultimate, the Makeblock mBot, and the Elegoo Smart Robot Car are all a little more work to put together, especially the Ultimate. All of these products use standard nuts and bolts to hold them together and it's inherently more difficult to correctly thread them together, and then tighten using a wrench and screwdriver, compared to simple snap-together pieces. This added difficulty can be quite frustrating for kids. We found it very easy to mistakenly swap parts of the frame, and the minuscule screws used to affix shaft collars and gears into position are astonishingly small and easy to lose. We would expect all three of these kits to require some significant parental/guardian assistance for the vast majority of kids.
Content Topics Covered
Next, we compared the different curriculum topics for which each robot kit can serve as a starting point. Engineering Design has been included in the Next Gen Science Standards for every grade level from kindergarten to 12th grade. These standards, unfortunately, are often overlooked, so we placed the most value on kits that allow your kids to engage in creative problem solving and an iterative design process in addition to covering the fundamentals of programming, electronics, and mechanical components.
The LEGO Boost, the LEGO Mindstorms EV3, the Makeblock Ultimate, and the mBot all stand out for covering a wide range of topics. You have plenty of general mechanical design topics to look at, such as motors, gears, and forces, as well as electronics through ultrasonic, light, and touch sensors. All four of these kits have immersive programming environments that are easy to use along with guided tutorials and challenges that allow you to come up with different solutions to a problem and optimize your answer — a fundamental tenet of the engineering design process. Both the Boost Creative Toolbox and the Mindstorms EV3 even come with playmats and corresponding challenges.
The Elegoo Smart Robot Car covers the same content topics as the four previously mentioned kits but doesn't offer a guided progression or engineering challenges, so you'll have to come up with these on your own. The UBTECH Jimu Buzzbot hits many of those same content areas but we find the lack of sensors to be a major flaw compared to the other robots, precluding any discussions about the types of sensors while not enabling kids to create basic programs that could make their robot respond to outside stimuli. However, it does offer guided tutorials and lessons to work through and the opportunity for both graphical and text-based programming.
The Sphero Mini doesn't provide too much besides software development but it does pack an impressive amount of sensors into a tiny package. That should give you plenty of challenges and lessons to work with if you're creative enough. There are also a handful of projects and challenges both from Sphero and the in-app community available, they just aren't as structured as some of the other robots.
The Nintendo Labo lets you create your own programs on the Switch and introduces you to some sensors, but you are limited to the IR motion camera, accelerometers, and gyroscopes already present in the Joy-Cons. Although it has a good set of guided lessons and activities, we found it a little more difficult to actually create solutions or radically alter the various Toy-Cons compared to systems like LEGO or Makeblock. It's easy to customize your creations but creating something entirely new within the Nintendo Labo system isn't the easiest.
In terms of content areas, both the Sillbird 12-in-1 and the 4M Tin Can Robot are both fairly limited. You don't have a chance to change the design and fundamental operation of these robots since you can't program or control them. However, the 4M Tin Can's repurposed body and the Sillbird 12-in-1's solar panel could lead to some conversations about green energy, renewable vs. nonrenewable resources, or recycling.
In our mind, an important aspect of these products is that they continue to foster learning and creative play even after you finish putting it together. We liked the kits that offered both tons of activities to do as well as suggestions for ways to use each robot beyond the included directions, as well as being compatible with further expansions or add-ons so you can keep growing your skills once you have maxed out with the included components.
In terms of further expansion, the Makeblock Ultimate and the mBot offer some of the most potential. These both let you start by controlling each robot, then move on to graphical programming, and finally finish with text-based Arduino coding. There are tons of additional components available from Makeblock to add more sensors, motors, or even additional configurations of each of these robots. These products are also compatible with other Arduino systems so you aren't limited to products made by Makeblock. These are some of the very same components used by engineers when prototyping their designs, so these kits could easily serve as a starting point for many years of robotics education.
The Elegoo Smart Robot Car is a very similar robot kit for kids, as it's a solid foundation for getting started with Arduino coding. It's compatible with a wide array of third-party components that are fairly inexpensive.
However, we suspect you might tire of the Elegoo app and end up doing any code development directly in the Arduino Integrated Development Environment (IDE). The Arduino IDE can have a steeper learning curve than graphical programming but can foster skills that would serve a young robotics engineer throughout their entire career.
Both the LEGO Mindstorms EV3 and the LEGO Boost also have some potential for further expansion but they are limited to LEGO-compatible products. They provide directions for combining these products with a handful of other kits and you are always free to improvise and create with your own LEGO sets.
We've generally found that it's easier to come up with your own designs and successfully execute them with LEGOs compared to the Makeblock Ultimate or the Jimu Buzzbot. The UBTECH Jimu Buzzbot robot kit for kids can also be combined with other products from UBTECH but the options are considerably more limited than LEGO's offerings and aren't compatible with generic parts.
The same goes for the Nintendo Labo as there are a few other Toy-Con kits available but there aren't any third-party offerings either.
The final thing we compared and scored between robotics kits is their durability. Many of these kits can be quite expensive so you are going to want to have some confidence that your investment will last some time. We based points on the different materials used by each kit, the availability of replacement parts, susceptibility to water damage, and the likelihood of damage if they were dropped or stepped on.
Both the LEGO Boost and the LEGO Mindstorms are quite durable, with their injection-molded bricks taking considerable amounts of force to break. The cables connecting the motors and sensors to the main power bricks seem quite sturdy and it's only some of the elastic bands that we would be worried about breaking or wearing out over time. Your creation might fall apart if dropped but it shouldn't be damaged irreparably and most people are painfully aware of what happens if you step on a LEGO brick — Spoiler Alert: the LEGO brick wins.
Both the Makeblock Ultimate and the mBot have rigid metal frames that can take a beating and are unlikely to be damaged by dropping or stepping on them. However, there are plenty of tiny fasteners that are very easy to lose or wear out. Luckily, these are common fasteners and many can be picked up for mere pennies at your local hardware store or online. The Elegoo Smart Robot Car is similar but substitutes a metal frame for a heavy-duty plastic one that seems almost as burly.
The UBTECH Jimu Buzzbot and Muttbot kit is almost as sturdy as the LEGO robots in our mind but we could see the servos and some of the other parts being damaged if dropped from a significant height or if they are torqued past their range of motion. The cabling also seems fairly delicate to the point where we wouldn't be surprised if it wore out after repeated use.
The Sphero Mini and the Nintendo Labo do give us some cause for concern in this department. We could very much see the Sphero Mini getting stepped on due to its minuscule size and somewhat erratic driving nature, leading to its untimely doom.
The cardboard-based construction of the Labo also seems at quite a disadvantage to the plastic and metal robots. True, it has some surprisingly rigid and sturdy construction given its choice of materials but we find it hard to believe that it would stand the test of time as well as other robot kits. On top of that, while none of these robots are waterproof, the Nintendo Labo is definitely the most prone to liquid damage. You can also damage the parts by folding them incorrectly or in the wrong areas so you need to pay close attention to the onscreen instructions when making your Toy-Cons.
The Sillbird 12-in-1 is the only kit that actually sustained any damage during our testing. The plastic boat hull cracked when we were folding it and one of the plastic pegs chipped when we were removing flashing with a flush cutter.
We sincerely hope that you have found this review helpful and informative when it comes to finding a new robot kit for your kids or students. These products can be great tools to introduce complex and technical topics in a fun way through hands-on experimentation and creative play. Robotics kits are a great way to enrich education for any grade level and a fun way to foster interest in STEM topics, particularly if they aren't getting exposure to these topics in school.
— David Wise