A lot of educational robots shipped to families are already pre-designed and completely manufactured. Now, a Kickstarter project called Quirkbot hopes to give kids a set of tiny, customisable microcontrollers as part of a ‘build your own robot’ system for children. The bot system, created by a Swedish team calling themselves KidsHackDay, lets children build their own robots using drinking straws.

KidsHackDay is a team of individuals who promote one-day hands-on educational events around the world that bring kids and technology together. These hack days needed more tools to get kids creating quickly. Kids have short attention spans, and these events are quick, ad-hoc affairs, so the requirements were pretty strict.

“The project rose from a need in the KidsHackDay global community to quickly be able to make simpler and more fun technology workshops for kids,” says Daniel Mascarenhas, creative director for the organisation.

Build your own robot, microcontroller-style

The bots in the Quirkbot build your own robot system are small microcontrollers, designed to connect together drinking straws, which are in turn attached using another Kickstarter project, called Strawbees. Strawbees is an open construction set, featuring little more than a series of small connectors, but they can connect basic materials in useful, moveable ways. Here’s their video:

Erik Thorstensson, the inventor of Strawbees, is on the core team for KidsHackDay (he’s the Director of Fun, which is a title we wish more Fortune 500 companies had).

“We wanted to create an electronics platform that was as easy and fun as Strawbees,” Mascarenhas says. “The Strawbees system is open hardware, so anyone can use the platform to create something new. And since KidsHackDay is the organisation that had the most experience of Strawbees, it came naturally that it was us that did it first.”

The Quirkbot microcontrollers are programmed using a visual block-style language via a Mac or PC, and the code is uploaded to the controller. It can then process inputs or outputs to and from the devices connected to it. Kids connect Strawbees and drinking straws directly to the microcontroller, in addition to other electronic devices, made specifically for the Quirkbot. There are various modules for the system, which the team calls ‘backpacks’. In addition to the LED lights and servo motor, it also offers distance sensors and speakers. These devices are attached directly to the arms of the Quirkbot by just slipping over them, in a system that KidsHackDay calls ‘squeeze on electronics’.

The Quirkbots can be used for both output and input. and they can make LED lights glow, or send their output to a computer. They can also act as light and touch sensors, though, providing analogue input channels that can be used to control other outputs. The result? How about a PacMan game controlled with bananas?

Here’s the video for Quirkbot, to show you what it can do.

Who is it for?

The bots are aimed at all ages in the official literature, but Mascarenhas says that the kids in the KidsHackDay events are between 9-12, so that seems to be the sweet spot. There’s no real upper age limit, he says.

“Another very important thing about the Quirkbot robots and other things you build with it is that there is no right way to build a project,” he points out. “If the legs gets longer or the head heavier it will still dance or crawl or spin and usually in some very unexpected and fun ways. Strawbees structures are flexy and bouncy and very forgiving. And it’s very quick to change something or extend it.”

Build your own robot projects already developed by kids include carnivorous drinking straw robot plants, robot dogs, and robot sweepers.

“We usually start with some simple concept like a motor moving back and forth and then just put some legs on it and from there it’s all experimentation,” he says. “Change the speed, change some angle, add some weight, make it move from a light sensor, add some blinking LEDs. Neither we or the kids knows where we will end up.”

There are more things coming out of the Quirkbot build your own robot project. The team is planning educational materials, and its work with a Swedish Science center will soon lead to content for the center’s public makerspace, and teacher education programmes. It also planning more backpacks for the bots. In the future, look out for microphones and phone controllers, the firm says.