Learn to Program Our Future Overlords With the MotionBlock Robotics Kit
The build quality, software, and potential of this STEAM-focused robotics kit is worth every single dollar. If your kids are excited by STEM or STEAM, the MotionBlock kit is an unmissable purchase.
Looking for a programmable robot to help your kids get to grips with STEM or STEAM education? Makeblock’s MotionBlock kit might just be exactly what you’re looking for—but is it just a bit too complicated for most school-age children?
What Is STEM/STEAM?
Aimed at 14 years and above, MotionBlock is a collection of robotics components that can be programmed using Scratch and Python. A 2019 Red Dot award winner (for Programmable Robot Kit), Makeblock has specifically marketed the kit as being suitable for school-age children with an interest in robotics.
Or more specifically, Science, Technology, Engineering, (optional Art), and Math. Often, to test kits like this, we recruit someone of suitable age to help assess its suitability.
However, in this case, it has not been possible, ironically due to school exams. So, I’ve channeled my 14-year-old self to review the MotionBlock kit. This might not be as ridiculous as it first seems…
Unboxing the MotionBlock
An immense collection of 144 components can be found inside the MotionBlock box. So many, in fact, that the (pretty heavy) box is subdivided into two smaller boxes, each loaded with robotics kit.
Described as “sophisticated mechanical and electronic components” these modules can be combined using simple dovetail joints and cables. Five intelligent servo blocks are included, offering 360 degrees continuous rotation and high precision. They can be programmed using a synchronizer, motion recording, or in Scratch.
Along with the servos, cables, and dovetail joints, you’ll find wheels, a ball gun, and the central computer. This is accompanied by a simple 12×16 LED dot display (mounted on the “main brain”, known as the Master Control) which can help to add some character to your robot builds. The computer is powered by a compact rechargeable battery, which comes with its own USB charger. It’s worth plugging this in for a few hours before you get started.
There’s also a box complete with a Torx screwdriver and various screws. These are required to construct the modules. For example, the swing and clamping module segments of the robot arm and grabber need to be built.
This, really, is the basis for the age grouping. While I suspect younger children could program the robot with Scratch, building the modules is certainly for older kids with superior motor skills.
What Can You Do With the MotionBlock Robotics Kit?
The MotionBlock kit comes with various designs for you to try:
- Sampling Rover
- Off-Road Auto
- Robotic Arm
- Pitching Auto
These unusual builds highlight the versatility of the MotionBlock components and utilize key modules. Among these are the acceleration module, ejection module, and rotating module, as well as the swing and mechanical claw clamping modules mentioned earlier.
Underlying each build are a collection of five high-performance intelligent servos. They’re designed to imitate the behaviors of many animals, with high stability of control and strong capacity of bearing.
Pen module, suction cups, and more can be also be employed for unique, individual builds. The main module, meanwhile, features Bluetooth, enabling you to control your MotionBlock creation remotely via a mobile app or a dedicated controller. There’s also a micro USB port for connecting the module directly to your computer to upload programs.
Meanwhile, thanks to a pair of LEGO adaptors, you can also integrate your MotionBlock build with your latest LEGO project.
Building Your First Robot
Many robotics kits come with a bunch of components and modules that just snap together. A few minutes later, you’ve got a robot moving around, a program freshly uploaded via USB.
Not so with MotionBlock.
Aiming for simplicity in the review, I opted for the Robotic Arm. Instructions for this build are included in the printed manual (others are in the mobile app for Android and iOS), so it made sense to start here.
90 minutes later I was done, having constructed every servo module. Unfortunately, I still had to build the Synchronizer, a remote unit that controls the robot arm. While this was a bit faster, the entire build time was around two hours.
It’s worth highlighting here that although the Synchronizer is a useful remote, it is limited by the 25mm cable connection to the Master Control. It’s also limited by some restrictive brackets (“Stoblocks”) that prevent full motion. They appear to be provided to prevent the cables from being stretched but have the opposite effect. Better motion can be achieved without these parts.
Also, the robot arm requires calibration when used with the remote, but this isn’t the case with app-based remote control.
Getting the Build Right
Unfortunately, I ran into a problem. It seems that early in the build, I connected a component incorrectly. While I immediately fixed the issue, the damage was done.
Four 16mm screws had penetrated the case of one of the servos, resulting in the arm being non-functional. This was the servo installed in the rotating block, a key component of the arm.
This happened thanks to a simple misreading of the instructions. No unreasonable force was used. In fact, it was tougher to screw the 16mm screws correctly.
On the plus side, if I had used the instructions in the mobile app, it would have been far clearer. Here, each step is guided, with an animated illustration and an interactive 3D graphic of the components. In short, if you’re planning to buy this kit, use the manual in the mobile app.
Seized Up Servo
Reading the instructions carefully won’t prevent manufacturing failures, however. While experimenting with the Synchronizer arm, it turned out that one of the servos—ironically the one fitted in the rotating module to repair the one I damaged—had seized up.
With all builds of the MotionBlock kit requiring four or more servos, that pretty much brought things to an end.
Fortunately, Makeblock were kind enough to forward a pair of replacement servos. A few weeks later, the robot was finally up and running.
Further investigation showed that the screws were not sorted as per the labels in the box. This resulted in me using 20mm screws instead of 16mm. That 4mm difference would probably have saved the circuit board in the servo!
Once again, the moral or the story is clear: pay close attention to every step of the instructions.
Hook Up the Mobile App to Control Your Robot via Bluetooth
With your robot built, it’s a good time to sync it to your mobile device over Bluetooth. Get started by installing the Makeblock app, available for Android and iOS. While phone versions of the apps are available, we found the tablet user interface was more usable.
Syncing over Bluetooth is handled by the app (with the usual system confirmation) and is surprisingly painless. A few moments later, you’ll be ready to control your robot project. Each supported robot build has its own control interface, enabling you to steer, guide, or otherwise manipulate the construction based on the component parts.
Additional Mobile App Features
Various extras are hidden in the mobile app that can change the way you use your robot build. For example, there’s a neat little pixel art screen that lets you alter the default LED displayed on the Master Control’s display.
There’s also the option to change some default settings. For example, with the robot arm build, you can alter the strength of the arm and grabber. Note that a different surface may be required to ensure the suction cups are properly secured. We used a varnished farmhouse-style table for this review, which has various imperfections that can weaken suction.
And if you’re looking for something new to do with your robot arm, how about mounting a pen on it? The app features a drawing tool that you can use to easily program a few words, doodles or even artwork. Watching a robot write or draw is quite a sight!
The app will also display the battery status, so you can tell when your robot will need recharging.
Programming Is Simple with Scratch and Python
When you’re done with manual control of the robot, you can begin to program it with Scratch and Python.
This is easiest via the mobile app, where you can use the Scratch software to program your robot. In the case of the arm, this could be something as simple as instructing it to pick up an object and place it elsewhere. With vehicular builds, the program might be to move around. While no standard sensors are included, this should be possible regardless if you know the distances involved.
A desktop interface is also available, called mBlock 5. This features a Scratch interface that supports the conversion of the program into Python code. A version of mBlock is also available for Android and iOS. Programming in this manner can be done live, although the best results seem to be enjoyed by uploading programs directly, as you might an Arduino.
Another, less high-tech way to program the MotionBlock robot is included. This relies on programming the Master Control module directly by recording manual servo movements. For example, you might program the arm to move around, open, and close, using your hands. This action is then saved and played back, with the robot following the steps you manually programmed by manipulating it.
Reimagine Your Robot with MotionBlock Kit
By the time you’ve reached the end of your first build with the MotionBlock kit, the truth is clear. This is a truly amazing collection of projects and activities, solidly manufactured and expertly packaged and presented.
There’s literally nothing wrong with this kit, short of the ability of a 40-something reviewer to accidentally break it. Maybe the battery could last longer, or perhaps it could feature a camera module for the vehicular builds. These are minor gripes, however.
If you have STEM or STEAM-interested kids who are in the right age group, you should seriously consider the MotionBlock kit.