22 November 2010

Some children are into robot stuff, some all things mechanical, some anything they can build, and others anything that moves. Robot kits will delight these kids, offering lots of learning through good play. Like the Airfix kits of yesteryear, these can be hours of fun and then they can be powered up to do amazing things too. This means there is the delayed gratification of seeing it move, but plenty to keep their attention for the build itself.

While some robots are all just about driving and controlling them (some of these do that too!), this is focused all on those they can build or modify, and can learn great things about science and technology doing so.

All these kits are solderless - requiring no soldering makes them a safe bet for your budding genius. Most will have some degree of crafting, building and all will develop those skills. Some involve a little programming and control engineering - all good steps to being a computer or robot whiz.

There are a few price points so you have choice when consider the best toys for you child, or your big kid. If you are anything like me, you may be considering kits like these for yourself. You can use this either as a gift guide for the maker in the family, a guide for home schooling robot kits or as a guide to for kits you can enjoy yourself.

These can be gifts for your children, suitable for Christmas and Birthdays. They also may make great gifts for a husband or bf - there are few men that would not be thrilled at receiving a robot kit to build, although they may go away and hide themselves for a few hours to build it!


I’ve been building robots for decades, had a website on the subject since 2000 (originally the Robot Junkyard, later Orionrobots), and I’ve been saying I would make and sell them since I was a kid. Orionrobots is my site - and I have sold the Explorer 1 robot through this, although as of 2014 I am now working on my next robot. Details will come later.

The Explorer 1 kits requirer NO SOLDERING, DRILLING or SAWING so they are safe for children to build. However, the kits are real robotic boards - not simply a plaything, and can be used as the basis for serious robotic experimentation or be used to compete in robot competitions.

The robot kits currently on the site were also relatively inexpensive - a fraction of the price of Lego and other kits.


This robotic construction kit was designed to be completely customisable or modifiable and it is a real robot. It comes as a set of parts - which are brought together without soldering. Motor control board, microcontroller, a four wheel drive platform, batteries and cables.

The robot is designed to be extensible - so other sensors and actuators can be added by utilising the spare pins on the microcontroller. All the connections are made point-to-point with jumper wires and the robot is powered by 6 standard AA batteries - no hard to find/expensive to replace battery packs.

There are full assembly instructions online, and code on github to get your kids started programming it - there will also be a series of instructional lessons to follow on understanding the robot and getting it to do more.

Why is it important to have solderless kits?

In short:

  • Safety - both a burning hazard, fire hazard and toxic fumes hazard
  • Soldering can be frustrating until some experience has been gained.
  • You may damage a kit if not experienced - expensive mistakes.
  • You’ll need additional tools.

While soldering is suitable for suitably trained adults and older teenagers, it can be fairly dangerous and should not be attempted without being a) old enough to take it seriously, and b) Some preparation and training.

Soldering irons are hot enough to melt the solder alloy so it can make the electrical joints. At the temperatures these reach they are capable of leaving serious burns. If a soldering iron is left on, it can also easily cause a fire.

Soldering irons tend to be high current devices, and should only be used with a fused outlet rated for their current usage.

Soldering can produce fumes, some of which can be toxic and should definitely not be directly inhaled.

Once the health and safety concerns are aside, until somebody is experienced, it will be frustrating, as dry joints will at best make no contact, and at worst make connections with a large amount of electrical noise or high resistance. For sensitive robotic devices, this can make them behave completely erratically. Also it is important not to overheat components while soldering them as this will stop them from working.

There are other lists for more advanced builders, and by all means I encourage learning to solder and using starter kits, but a good understanding of electronics and a good safety discipline should come first.

Finally - you would also require the additional equipment. Kits that require soldering tend to assume you already have the Iron, Solder and all the other tools required. the kits I have chosen here require either no tools at all (Lego), or a bare minimum like screwdriver and pliers.

Number Two - The OWI “Edg” Robot Arm

This arm is something a little bit special. While bugs, rovers, solar power and other things say robot, nothing quite says it like a robot hand - and the Edge looks great. It has been sold in maplin, and is featured on the Makershed store which is generally a fairly positive indicator.

It requires construction which will be great fun. You can then use the controller to move the 5 motors controlling the different joints and operate the gripper. Ann additional kit (see below) adds USB connectivity so it can be controlled from a PC, or for the more advanced robot builder, they may be able to substitute the 5 switch controller with the microcontroller board of their choice.

Younger children interested in robot can play with and assemble this, but will require more supervision as there are small parts and some fairly difficult assemblies, as well as some cutting of plastic parts from sprue’s and squaring up their edges.

I’ve seen this robot customized and attached to other robot toys to make awesome machines!

See the “Edge” Robotic arm in action!

Add ons for the OWI Edge Robot Arm

The Arm has a recommended accessory with the USB interface, but it can be expanded in a number of other ways. This expands the robot arm by allowing it to be connected to the USB port of a computer, and is a great way to introduce a kid to programming. Having built a robot, programming it to really add another dimension, and could be a great part of a homeschooling curriculum. The maplin Arm comes with the USB on board instead of the control pendant.

It can also be modified to work with the Arduino too.

Important considerations buying robot kits for children

There is a growing number of robot kits on the market now, after a quiet period the hobbyist is really taking off. However, when buying a kit for your child, you should consider a few points.

  • Firstly the recommended age for the kit. These ages are a guideline, and not an absolute requirement, however, consider how advanced your child is before buying them a kit. A child that is too young for a kit may result in harm to your child, frustration and a broken kit. Get an idea of the complexity of the kit - there may be simpler kits to start on first.
  • What tools are required? The best kits either require no tools, or ship with them. This can be another indicator of the kits complexity, and the safety of your child with it. If it requires cutting then supervision may be required. be sure to have the tools available as it would be a shame to not be able to build the kit. DO NOT use stand in tools - this is dangerous and can result in injury or broken parts.
  • What skills are required? Does the kit require deep understanding of programming or mechanics, or does it teach them as it goes along? The Lego kits are generally excellent in this regard, as they are suitable for a complete beginner, but also have plenty of interest to advanced kit builders.
  • Does it require batteries? Which ones? Most robot kits will require batteries to power them. Be sure to have a set of the right kinds ready so that the kit can be turned on when it has been built.

Number 3 - The Big Trak

It was popular in the 80’s and was then missing presumed dead for a long time. Recently it has been remade - and is better than ever. This is an easy to program complete robot ready for kids to play with and learn how to create instruction sequences.

It is able to navigate based on the selections - and with some tinkering, can be modified into a full on robot platform. I’ve seen one where the default controller and keypad were dropped in favour of a Raspberry Pi and an OWI Edge Robot arm with bluetooth remote control.

So this starts off as a toy - but it can inspire much greater play. Come on - you know you always wanted one of these yourself anyway!

The Awesome Robot Arm on a Big Trak

This is probably the coolest home build robot I’ve seen in a while - which an old colleague of mine built. It is a Big Trak, with an OWI Robot arm and uses the Raspberry Pi as its controlled - showing just how modifiable.


Number Four - The Snap Circuits RC Rover

A robot with electronics you build yourself - age 8+ years

Snap Circuits is a brand with solderless electronics, allowing children to explore the principles of electronics without the fuss or danger of soldering.

These are simple battery driven low power electronics, and any safety concerns are thoroughly explained in the manual. They are not really suitable for solo play, but are ideal toys for father and child to spend time together on (just make sure Dad doesn’t take over!).

This robot hands over its electronic design to a child. It is simple to put together, as well as bright and inspirational. While the robots kit says 8-13 years, I’d rather read that as 8 to 80+ years, as many Dads will want one too!

All the parts go together using a simple snap on mechanism which holds them in place, without needing soldering. The system is similar to clothing snaps, requiring a little force to push together and remove.

In the box are components to make a number of projects using the rovers motors, an LED light and buzzer that can make different tones. Capacitors and resistors can be used together to make timing circuits. The remote control is a proper wireless one (not corded), and the kit uses standard batteries to power it (not included).

The manual beautifully explains each of the parts in easy to understand detail, with illustrations and clear diagrams. There are “How it works” sections on the radio control system, motors and gears, batteries so the child would be well on their way to building or designing their own Electro-mechanical rc devices.

There are specific upgrade packs from Elenco (the manufacturer) for this robot too, giving it more capabilities.

While it simply makes up a remote control robot floor rover, it can be combined with some sensors and parts from other snap circuits sets to make complex behaviour allowing for a far more interesting robot. However, it does uses different voltages from other kits, so care and experience is required before linking this up with the other kits. Elenco have a section of the manual showing some combinations that could be made from these.

The rover is the obvious robot tie in, and probably one of the more exciting snap circuits. Snap circuits do however carry a complete range of kits, much of which can be used interchangeable for more complex functionality once the principles are well understood.

As with the rover, they have brilliantly put together instruction booklets and a simple solderless snap fit mechanism.

Number Four - The Arduino

The more complex option, perhaps for teenage and beyond

This is not for a beginner or young child, given that it is a microcontroller on a board with space for jumper cables to be plugged in. It is a great board with plenty of capabilities for building robotic and other cool gadgets that require some programmable element.

It is also remarkably small - taking up a space not much larger than a wallet or credit card. For a child who is a bit older, experienced and confident with electronics, this will make their day.

Alongside the bare board, it is worth having a number of components to connect it with to experiment, learn and build stuff. Starter kits give a great way to get stuck in. Sparkfun are now a brand well known among hobbyist makers.

The best way to do it is to find an Arduino Starter kit which will have the main module plus breadboards, wires and a bunch of fun modules and sensors to play with.

Combined with the development system and a helpful community, lots of tutorials and the buzz around the Arduino - this one is sure to go down really well.

Number Five - the Lego NXT

A Lego toy was always going to be near the top of my list!

This is almost the Ultimate robot building starter set for a kid - its Lego, its robotics, and it has the ability to play back sounds, along with Bluetooth and USB connectivity. It comes in at five because despite being one of the more awesome robot kits (and about to be replaced by the Lego EV3) it is also one of the most expensive kit on the block right now bar some left of field others that are not going to be as high up the wishlist.

There are 3 motors, 3 sensors and plenty of room for imagination with this.

While pricey, what kid does not want one of these? I’d recommend it for kids of age 10+ to 80 years of age. With ultrasound ranging systems, colour detection and sound detection this can be used to build a robot that would find its way around a floor, at the centre of the kit a programmable computer brick.

Each motor has rotation sensing which can be used to gauge the position of an arm or the speed of wheels, or to build their own joystick with feedback to control another robot.

Whatever they will do with it, you can guarantee one thing, The NXT will not disappoint.

A cheaper alternative if your child has Lego already

While the NXT is the top of the pack, it is not the only kit that is fun for a robot builder, nor the only one they will learn from. If you child already has a lot of Lego, or you’ve found a Technic Kit you like - why not add motors to it. Kids love anything that moves, and even more so if they’ve built it themselves.

Motorising the Lego you already have gives it a great boost. Use a Technic Power functions kit to extend other Technic Lego to learn about making things move.