Affordable, app-guided and fun. Other than the structural weaknesses, this is a great kit that will encourage interest in robots and programming among children.
Everyone wants their own robot, but other than vacuum cleaners, the only robots we really experience in real life at ATMs and supermarket self-service devices. Outside of manufacturing and nuclear power, robots aren’t particularly “droid” like, are they?
Thanks to littleBits, however, you can redress the balance slightly. Their new Star Wars Droid Inventors Kit delivers a foot-high R2-D2 into your home, ready for you to build from scratch. Throw in a mobile app, and decals for customization — not to mention a whole bunch of “missions” — this is a great kit for under $100.
However, to celebrate the impending release of Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi, we’ve got one to giveaway!
littleBits? Bits of What?
For the uninitiated, littleBits are basically small plastic bricks, of different colors, each with modules or switches mounted on them. These modules are connected to wires that run through the plastic, enabling you to connect the littleBits together into a circuit. Each littleBit is magnetic, which helps to complete the connection.
This makes the littleBits great for experimenting and prototyping, with special breadboards also included in the various littleBits packs to “fix” your build.
Most littleBits kits are quite expensive, and feature ten or more components. However, the Star Wars Droid Inventors Kit is quite different. We’ve already seen how affordable it is; it’s also simpler, features fewer littleBits than usual, and is geared towards a very narrow purpose. It teaches basic robotics to children.
This is done via a collection of plastic structural components, decals for personalization, and a series of app-based “missions” to help young minds focus their learning. But does all of this work, or is the Star Wars Droid Inventors Kit just another cynical tie-in?
What’s in the Box?
Aimed at children, the Star Wars Droid Inventors Kit comes in a lightweight box, complete with a carrying handle. In the box, you’ll find six littleBits (a control hub, power unit and 9V battery, a servo, one DC motor, a proximity sensor, and a wire) and 20 droid parts.
These include things like R2-D2’s cylindrical body, his dome-like head, legs, and three wheels. You’ll also find three sticker sheets, intended for droid customization. The droid’s body is transparent, but you can use blue stickers to give a realistic R2-D2 look; or you might try red, or even black.
At the heart of the cylinder, meanwhile, is a useful box-like breadboard, onto which the littleBits are mounted. Each component has four pegs, which are used to secure the littleBit to the breadboard. A door is provided in R2-D2’s chest for you to access the littleBits; it’s here that the power switch can be found.
R2-D2? It IS You, It IS You!
Teaming everything up is the app for Android and iOS devices, available from the Play Store and the App Store. This is the heart of the kit: all instructions and missions are found here (beyond the initial test setup). Missions range from building the droid from scratch, to giving R2-D2 some self-navigation skills.
- Force drive — wave your hand to push R2-D2
- Send a Leia-style secret message (hologram not included)
- Use household items to create a new droid body
- Draw mode — R2-D2 can hold a pen and create art!
- Obstacle course — train your droid to navigate around obstacles
All of these missions — and more — are available once the initial setup has been completed. This means that once the first stage of building R2-D2 has been achieved, and the droid controlled via mobile device, there is plenty still left to do.
Given the price, this demonstrates great value for money, and makes it an ideal gift for any inquisitive child aged 8 to 12.
Can a Child Really Use This Kit?
We see a lot of hardware aimed at children. Often it’s trashy stuff like smartwatches with privacy issues, or tablets with low battery life and unresponsive touchscreens. If we’re lucky, a really good product comes along — but even then, you have to question whether it is genuinely aimed at children or not.
To find out, we employed the services of my niece, Abi, who is 12. She’s helped out with a few reviews in the past, and like most children of her age, is excited by new technology. She also enjoys Star Wars, which I felt was quite an advantage…
(The littleBits website informs us that the Star Wars Droid Inventors Kit is for ages 8 and up. I would suggest that any eight-year-old using this kit — or any other from littleBits — has prodigious ability.)
Using the provided starter guide, Abi proceeded to remove the three main components from the box, along with the 9V battery and power adaptor lead, and create the test circuit. A few moments later, a blue light appeared, and a recognizably R2-D2 noise rang out.
The droid was ready to build.
Why Would You Build Your Own Droid?
Having a droid around the place would be great, wouldn’t it? Well… no, probably not. Unless you were talking about a C-3PO style protocol droid for communicating with your various entertainment systems or your home’s heating! Certainly an astromech droid — a robot intended for the maintenance of space craft — is not practical around the home.
Joking aside, you probably don’t even need a robot at home. We encounter robots in so many different contexts, and automated vacuum cleaners aside, few of these impact daily life. As noted, there are ATMs, self-service checkouts… probably telephone banking is the only other time when any form of automated (barely artificial) intelligence affects us.
So even if the hardware to build a genuine Star Wars-style droid was affordable, the chances of you needing one are minimal. Fortunately, this isn’t an argument against the littleBits Star Wars Droid Inventors Kit. Put simply, it isn’t really a droid, it just looks like one. There’s nothing genuinely “robot-y” about this.
But what you do have, once constructed, is a great toy that can focus young minds on basic programming, enhance hand-eye coordination, and ultimately entertain whoever is using it. Sure, the droid is only 12 inches tall instead of 36 inches, but the compact dimensions deliver a degree of portability that the movie version doesn’t have.
In short, you can take this R2-D2 apart, put it away, and rebuild elsewhere!
How Easy Is it to Build?
For most adults, this plastic droid with a motor, servo, sensor, and Bluetooth connectivity should be relatively straightforward to put together. The biggest problem you’ll face is having fingers that are slightly too big.
When it comes to children, meanwhile, the biggest challenge will probably be lining up the littleBits components correctly, snapping the droid’s chassis together (excessive force will cause problems), and generally getting to grips with what is required.
Take Abi, for instance. One of the first things she did was connect the power cable to the power switch, but the angle of the cable forced the littleBits to decouple. Understanding that the cable had to lay parallel to the littleBits prevented this from being an issue again.
Later, when it came to building the droid fully, connecting the motor cog to the front wheel, and keeping the legs attached (they tend to come off with a slight knock), also proved taxing. As with any kit that requires considerable home construction, patience and perseverance are required here. Sticking at it yields results.
Remote Control Your R2 Unit with an App
Sitting at the heart of the R2-D2 droid is a control unit littleBits piece. This is the main computer, and the home of the Bluetooth radio. To get the most (indeed, to get anything at all) out of the Star Wars Droid Inventors Kit, you’ll need an Android or iOS smartphone to download the app.
Doubling up as an interactive manual and control unit, the app connects to the droid over Bluetooth. As effective as this is — the tutorials are excellent, and the droid looks superb in motion — the Bluetooth connection is spotty. Obviously, this caused some problems, but reconnection is usually swift. Opening the droid’s chest strangely seems to speed up any reconnection.
Overall, remote control of the droid is responsive and effective. As impressive as watching R2-D2 trundle about is, however, the most satisfying thing is using the app’s sound board to initiate familiar movie sounds from the droid!
R2D2 vs Other littleBits Kits
With over ten kits in their range, and a number of components available individually, littleBits have good experience developing educational toys for children. But how does the Star Wars Droid Inventors Kit measure up against kits like the Synth Kit, or the Smart Home kit?
Well, without a doubt this is the highest profile kit they have produced yet. Paying for a license and slapping a “Star Wars” label on a box is always going to raise eyebrows and expectations. But does it do the job here?
My own previous littleBits experience is with the Smart Home kit. A more expensive pack, with a number of different projects within, it’s fair to say that you’re somewhat spoiled for choice. That isn’t the case here. The Star Wars Droid Inventors Kit focuses your efforts, teasing you with Star Wars sounds and visuals along the way. While I suspect the Synth Kit and Education Code Kit are just as impressive, no kit is going to be as memorable as this one.
This IS the Droid You’re Looking For
Not everyone wants a droid. Those that do are going to be disappointed with what’s available to buy. A remote control BB8 doesn’t quite tick the right boxes. A brief Google or YouTube search will reveal plenty of home builders developing ambitious DIY projects to create their own Star Wars droid. Often, they use a Raspberry Pi, Arduino, or both. But these are complicated projects that require time, patience, programming skills and more; skills you or your child likely don’t have
Which brings us neatly to the Star Wars Droid Inventors Kit. Everything you could need to get started with your own R2-D2 (or custom droid built from household parts) is right here, giving you the opportunity to get building right away. It’s a fast-track into robot building, and while the little guy isn’t going to be serving drinks on a sand skiff or adjusting your rear deflectors any time soon, the Star Wars Droid Inventors Kit IS absolutely the droid you’re looking for.