Blame it on R2D2, or Bumblebee, but I have a soft spot in my heart for cute scrappy robots. Few robotic toys are as endearing in their efforts as the creations known as Hexbugs. A line of animal-like robots from Texas based Innovation First, Hexbugs mimic some of the characteristics of their namesakes. The crab Hexbug will scurry to hide in shady areas. The ant Hexbug races around efficiently. The inchworm skooches slowly at your commands. In fact, each Hexbug moves in a way that is instantly recognizable as stemming from real biological counterparts. Check out the videos after the break to see for yourself.
In its most serious incarnations, robotic mimicry can lead to amazing discoveries. We've seen robots that helped shed light on evolution by exploring the advantages of anatomical structures. While the toy form is less enlightening, it is perfectly geared towards teaching behavior to students. Hexbugs let you discuss the basics of robotics and biology all in the same device. As robots become more complex, and cheaper, smart toys may prepare young people for a professional world that will become increasingly roboticized.
Hexbugs come in four varieties with a fifth on the way. Inchworms have a remote control for those of you who need more authority over robots. Ants just run back and forth. The original bug (sort of like a cockroach) has antennae that guide it to avoid obstacles on an unending exploration of its space. The crab will move when scared (by a loud sound) but otherwise seeks shade. A new model, nano Hexbug, exihibits some sort of swarm behavior, as you can see in the video below.
My father in law gave me a crab Hexbug like the one in the video as a present last Christmas. It took me a few minutes to understand how to best control the little guy. A fair warning, the light sensor on its back is fairly sensitive, and a well lit room will keep the robot skittering around for hours. I really enjoyed steering the crab towards its desired shade via claps and laughter. The crab was so adept at finding the darkness that I actually lost it before I moved out of that apartment. Somewhere in New York there is an apartment that has a robotic infestation. Be warned.
Innovation First, Inc has an egalitarian bent, as you can see in the multiple robotics projects besides Hexbugs. Their VEX robotics are a classroom teaching tool. IFIrobotics has resources for robot hobbyists, and RobotEvents.com is designed to keep you abreast of innovations in the industry. Even Hexbugs have their philanthropic side. Innovation First offers cases of the little critters as a fundraising tool and groups can make a 50% profit from the sale of the robots at retail price ($10-$20).
Hexbugs may be more cute than extraordinary. Their animal like behavior has been seen in other robots, and their movement and sensing systems are pretty average. Still, they represent a nice trend in robotic toys: innovation as fun. Students and hobbyists are encouraged by such products to see the growing potential in robotics. These little guys are mimicking animals now, they'll likely mimic humans as they become more complex. And when presented in a toy, that potential seems hopeful and enjoyable. Which, after worrying about robots at war, is a pleasant change.
[photo credit: Innovation First]