What started out as a DIY project to create a fun way for a nine-year-old to learn programming is shaping up to become one of the most useful home robots yet — and the most affordable. Robit is a cute little wheeled robot who has become a guard dog, an assistant, and a friendly companion, all thanks to relatively simple hardware. And, with an open source platform, it looks like Robit is just getting started.
Robit is a three-wheeled robot with two large front wheels and a tiny one on the back for stabilization. On the outside, he’s all white with LED eyes that give him some personality. On the inside, he’s kitted out with sensors on the wheels to track distance and position, plus ultrasonic sensors, a gyroscope, cameras, a speaker, a microphone, and an accelerometer. Robit uses a Raspberry Pi 2 as its microcontroller, which is connected to a 900 MHz quad-core processor and 1 GB of RAM, along with 16 GB of storage for programs that Robit can execute. A lot of that hardware is similar to what’s found in smartphones, but is a lot less powerful and cheaper. That’s not a problem, because the multitasking demand on Robit’s robot brain will be a lot less taxing than it is on a smartphone.
So, what can Robit do? Well, anything that he can physically be made to do — Robit’s software is completely open-source, and his creators are making all APIs and libraries available to anyone who wants to develop their own programs. Programs can be dragged and dropped into Robit’s internal storage, then run through a companion smartphone app. Robit has Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity to communicate with smartphones, but that communication goes far beyond just control.
The best is yet to come for Robit, as eventually more and more developers will create useful programs. But, he’s already starting out with a pretty good base of functionality. Most of that revolves around Robit’s ability to learn — or, more accurately, your ability to teach him things. Robit can be taught to recognize and identify objects based on pictures that you provide — over time, Robit can learn to recognize keys, pets, and even faces.
There’s a lot you can do with that information — one of the creators of Robit, Shlomo Schwarcz, told me about how Robit can be programmed to recognize kids when they get home from school. But, that’s something we’ve seen a lot of kid-friendly GPS trackers do, in their own way. Robit has some unique tricks, though. One program allows Robit to recognize when keys, wallets, or phones have been dropped on the ground. If you’ve taught Robit a map of the house, he can then tell you where he saw the lost items last. The coolest example Schwarcz gave me involved a cat prone to scratching up furniture. He was able to write a program that made Robit recognize when the cat came near the couch and play loud noises to scare it away before damage was done.
There’s a lot here for kids to have fun with at home, but Robit could be a boon to classrooms, too. While Robit is cheap for a robot at $350, he’s still too expensive for schools to buy in bulk. Fortunately, there’s a Robit simulator online that entire classrooms can use to create programs for Robit. That way, a classroom really only needs one unit that can eventually be used to test all the work the kids are doing on their simulated robots.
Aside from being an awesome robot helper, Robit is the latest example of the explosion of awesome DIY creations. Now that sensors are being used in tons of smartphones and IoT devices, they’ve become widely produced and much cheaper. Combine that with ultra-cheap mini-computers like the Raspberry Pi 2 and the relative ease of 3D printing physical parts (the most expensive investment), creating things like Robit has become much easier for the average hobbyist.
The Schwarcz brothers, creators of Robit, really want to tap into that creative DIY wellspring. Not only are they making Robit completely open source, they’re hoping to create an exchange network — if someone else figures out how to reliably teach Robit to recognize what a cat is, that code can be shared with other Robit units. Ideally, it’d be like a neural network, where if one Robit learns something, all Robits learn it. You know, like Skynet.
Kidding aside (we think), Robit probably isn’t for the mass market yet — to get the most out of him, you’ll need some familiarity with programming concepts, and getting him to do what you want him to do will take some work. But, that’s what makes Robit perfect for educational use. That’s especially true because until now, robots that aim to teach kids how to code usually end up being toys. With Robit, kids can learn coding and see tangible results of their work. It’ll end up being a much more rewarding enterprise for all involved — it got Schwarcz’ nine-year-old son to learn coding, after all!
To make it to mass production, Robit has launched an Indiegogo funding campaign with a target of $40,000. The usual caveats about crowdfunding apply here, but we have good reason to think things will work out with Robit. They already have a working prototype, and they don’t seem to be overly optimistic with their release window, currently targeting early 2017 for shipping. But, more than anything, we’re confident because Robit isn’t actually all that complex — when you break him down by components, everything involved is pretty cheap and relatively easy to acquire and assemble. Things look pretty promising for the campaign, too — in just one day of fundraising, Robit already has $15,000 of that $40,000 goal. Granted, that’s only from 19 people, and they’re probably all enthusiasts with money to spare. Still, with a promising product and over one-third of the money needed in the bank at the end of day one, it looks like Robit has a good chance of becoming the robot butler we’ve been waiting for.
Robit’s regular price will be $350, but there are still plenty of early bird units available for $330. You can check out their Indiegogo page for more information about other contribution tiers.