littleBits is one of our favorite company’s in the STEAM space, and has been shaking up the industry by pairing top-notch coding and electronics kits with eye-catching and interesting themes. One of their newest releases took tinkerers to a galaxy far, far away to build and program their very own astromech droid. Today we’ll be taking a hands-on look at the littleBits Droid Inventor kit to see if it stacks up to be a prized robotic companion or a bucket of bolts.
Like you can imagine for any droid or robot, littleBits’ version is comprised of both its shell, and then filled with all of the internal components that bring it to life.
The droid’s outer casing is molded out of entirely transparent plastic and surprisingly, includes a solid amount of detail. A few sticker sheets are included to add some color to your creation, but otherwise you’re left with a simple overall look. This is of course intentional, as littleBits wants you to be able to see all of the internal workings of the robot, rather than create a screen-accurate recreation of everyone’s favorite astromech droid.
Making our way inside the droid, anyone who has assembled a littleBits kit before will be right at home. There’s the familiar breadboard-like structural pieces, a series of littleBits electronic components, and them some wheels, gears and other accessories. For those who haven’t assembled any of the company’s other sets, myself included, the Droid Inventor Kit packs plenty of instructions alongside the extremely helpful companion application to get you acquainted with how everything works.
The actual littleBits bricks snap together thanks to built-in magnets, making it really simple to piece together a working creation. This removes any hurdles like soldering from the tinkering equation and effectively lowers the barrier of entry to just about anyone who can pick up the colorful miniature circuit boards.
Something else that I was entirely blown away by is the fact that the entire droid is powered by a measly 9-volt battery. While some may have preferred a rechargeable one for convenience sake, the simplicity of a single, standard battery makes the kit even more impressive in my book.
And while the Droid Inventor Kit only comes with five of these different pieces, they’re more than enough to bring your custom bot to life in more ways than one. There are a few different configurations that your astromech can be switched between, granting you the ability to control the droid’s movement, head rotation and more.
All in all, once the droid is put together, it stacks up to a pretty robust finished product. While it’ll have no trouble staying together, it’s also easy to dissemble for further tinkering and has a few holes in the outer shell to make reaching into the droid a simpler process, so you don’t have to take everything apart just for one little tweak.
Just about every aspect of the droid, from assembly to control and more is centered around the kit’s companion iOS and Android application. The app itself is impressively made and full of plenty of charm. Menus, buttons and other graphics share a design straight out of the Star Wars universe and complement the droid’s novelty extremely well.
Aside from just being a way to manually control your new custom-made robot, the app also serves as a guide to get acquainted with the droid and its functionality through a series of missions that detail everything from actually piecing together the robot to programming commands and more. While the former part is fairly straightforward, the latter missions are a bulk of the kit’s overall experience and pack a surprising amount of substance.
Once you’ve gotten your new smartphone-controlled companion assembled, you can begin the real fun of actually programming it to do your bidding. While there are 21 different missions to take your droid on, the first five revolve around getting things set up and customized to your liking. But that leaves 16 different activities to complete, which range from programming the droid to follow an obstacle course all the way to creating custom code snippets to have the robot execute.
Intermediate missions have you making the little astromech draw, respond to ‘Force’ gesture controls and more. But if that weren’t enough, the kit is rounded out by a full programming environment that brings almost total creative control.
It works pretty similarly to the popular drag-and-drop coding system Scratch, and is on-par quality wise with other implementations I’ve used from the likes of Sphero. There’s a lot of complexity to it, but enough guidance to make it a great introduction to programming concepts. And with it being in the context of programming your own droid, it’s one of the most entertaining coding experience out there.
One downside here is that while Swift Playgrounds support is said to exist, getting things configured no longer works thanks to a series of website 404 errors. Hopefully that gets fixed sooner than later. Regardless, littleBits’ own programming system is pretty solid.
Final thoughts |
littleBits is one of the most well-known names in the STEAM toy field, and for good reason. The company’s releases are as enjoyable as they are substantial and educational. The Droid Inventor Kit is no exception, as it provides a one-of-a-kind programming experience thanks to being tied with a galaxy far, far away.
By far the hardest part of assembling the droid was applying the stickers, an optional step that, as you can imagine, is pretty tricky. But since when is trying to precisely apply stickers a new or unique issue?
But in all seriousness, the fact that handling some slightly tedious cosmetics is the hardest part of a robotics kit is a pretty phenomenal feat from littleBits. It speaks to just how simple the kit is to assemble and how accessible robotics, as well as programming, can be.
One thing to consider though is that while something like the Kano Computer Kit can be thoroughly enjoyed by a wider age range, the Droid Inventor Kit is geared more towards younger Star Wars fans looking to tinker. That’s not a knock against the kit as I think littleBits’ decision to keep its scope limited has resulted in a much better end product. Just something to keep in mind for older coding novices.
But at the end of the day, I can’t recommend the Droid Inventor Kit enough. Even if it is on the introductory-side of things, really just about any Star Wars fan would love it. Should you wish to adopt your very own astromech droid, littleBits’ Droid Inventor Kit is currently available for purchase from Amazon.