We build and test the mBot robot kit from Makeblock to see how good they really are.
We are spoilt for choice these days when it comes to getting into robotics and learning to code. A quick product search of electronics retailers websites returns a wide range of robotics and coding related products. Even major consumer electronics retailers are ranging various STEAM-related products.
If you’re just starting out, there are many ‘out of the box’ products such as the Sphero SPRK+, Meet Edison, and Tobbie II that don’t need to be assembled. You simply connect to them using a tablet, phone, or computer and you’re off and running. Some of them don’t even need to be connected to a smart device to operate. Instead, they have pre-programmed routines to get you started at the touch of a button.
For something a little more advanced, there are robotics kits that require a little more dexterity to assemble and operate. For instance, there is the Robotic Arm Kit available from most electronics retailers that needs to be screwed together and wired up. They can be a challenge to build but extremely rewarding once you’ve assembled it and have it working.
For those makers who have conquered these ‘out of the box’ robots, they can make their own robot, thanks to the wide range of parts now available at many electronics retailers. From motors and servos to chassis and controller boards, you can make all sorts of amazing robots.
The mBot Robot Kit
In this month’s review, we will look at the mBot Robot Kit, provided by our friends at Jaycar.
The mBot is from the stable of STEAM-related product by Makeblock, and is marketed to be an entry-level educational robot kit. It has been available for a few years, which indicates to us that it has been successful in the marketplace and not a one-season only product. It isn’t the cheapest of products, retailing for just under $200, but we’ll see if it’s good value for money based on putting it to the test.
What’s in the box?
From the moment you open the box, you get the impression that the mBot is a quality made product. The supplied paperwork includes a quick start guide, assembling manual, and an A2 sized sheet that folds out to make a black track for the mBot to follow.
The main controller board, called the mCore, is slightly transparent so you can see the internal circuitry and we presume any onboard LEDs. Connections include four RJ25 ports for sensors, motor connections, USB port, and power connectors. It has a main power slide switch, reset button, and a pushbutton on the front for operation.
The power can be provided using the included 4xAA battery holder or from a 3.7V lithium battery, which isn’t included. The two sensors included are the ultrasonic sensor that mounts on the front of mBot to sense objects in front of it, and a line-follower sensor to make mBot drive along a black line. The two wheels have rubber tyres and are driven by two TT type motors.
We also notice that the chassis has many mounting holes. These could be used to bolt on your own accessories or to attach any of the add-on packs available, which we see are sold at Core Electronics.
By using the supplied screwdriver, and assembly guide, the mBot is very easy to assemble. You just need to know when to reverse the screwdriver depending on the type of screws you are fixing at the time.
The wires all click into place on the mCore - no soldering is needed. You just need to remember which is the left and right motor, and which sensor is which when you plug them in. They are easy to swap though if you get them wrong.
To get up and running quickly, mBot is preprogrammed with three different modes. Simply by pressing the onboard pushbutton and watching the colour of the onboard LEDs you can choose between infrared remote control mode, obstacle avoidance mode, and line-follow mode. In obstacle avoidance mode, mBot will drive around and automatically turn around when an obstacle is in front it. In line-follow mode, simply sit mBot on the supplied A2 sheet and watch mBot follow the black line. Use the remote control mode to drive mBot like a regular RC vehicle.
To get into the coding side of things, Makeblock has developed an easy to use App called mBlock Blocky for Android and iOS devices. This App is designed for people with no coding experience at all. Easy to use guides, designed as games, teach you step-by-step on how to code. Once you get through the guides, you can code your own programs using the drag-and-drop graphical coding blocks, which is based on Scratch.
To advance your programming, Makeblock has developed mBlock 5. This has a block-based editor for beginners just like Scratch 3.0, and a Python coding editor for advanced coding. Both of which can be used online or downloaded to a computer.
HANDS ON TESTFor a quick test, we created a simple IF THEN ELSE program to make the mBot drive forward and turn around if there was an obstacle in front of it. We set it to repeat until the mBot was picked up. After a quick pairing via Bluetooth, we pressed the Play button and the mBot behaved exactly as intended. Placing objects in front of mBot or just waving our hand in front of the sensor made mBot turn around.
We were really pleased with the build quality and how easy it was to assemble mBot. In less than an hour, we had it build and driving about the office using the app. It was very easy to operate and the mBlocky app was quite intuitive.
Unlike other robots on the market, the mBot has been designed for different skill levels so people of any age can get some value from it. Youngsters can have the thrill of driving it like an RC car, older kids can learn to code with Scratch, and teenagers and up can get hands-on with Python coding, which is touted to be one of the best computer languages to learn nowadays. With the addition of add-on packs, mBot can also be coded to do all sorts of things.
So, in summary, even though it is a little bit expensive compared to some other options, it certainly makes up for it in its scope of teaching people of all ages how to code. We think the mBot would be a great gift for that budding maker in your life (or to treat yourself).
Get It Now
- KR9200 mBot Robot Kit available from Jaycar for A$199