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Thousands of Tiny Robots

The Modular Robotics Blog

Remember when you were a kid and someone would ask you, at the beginning of school, to write an essay or introduce yourself by talking about what you did over your summer vacation? I used to try and prepare (because I’m a huge dork) and draft it in my head before I returned to school. So, here, a quick PRE-cap of MOD BOT Edu’s summer vacation.

I’m writing this post from Atlanta, a land of endless fried vegetables and phenomenally good jazz and brass band music. We’re here for the ISTE 2014 conference. We’ve met some inspiring educators and innovators here, and it’s been great to have our booth on the Exhibition floor as well as have the team giving four presentations during the conference.  We’re so excited to have so many chances to connect with educators, give them a chance to try Cubelets and MOSS, and share ideas.

After this I head to Dallas where I’ll be co-managing a really cool and out-of the-box collaboration between our company and the Frontiers of Flight museum. This is big, everyone – while MOSS has been out in the world, this is the first time we’ll be using it for structured education and I’m thrilled to pilot it in a new camp that we are jointly offering with this museum on engineering, robotics, and space! As a bonus, while I’m in Dallas, I’m doing a Radio Disney interview about robots, education, and what we’re doing. I also get to work with with Perot Museum of Nature and Science’s Leaders in Science Teachers, and their Family Discovery day on July 12th.

Then I jet off to Chicago where colleague Donald Ness and I will be talking about how playing with robots can lead to computational thinking and learning about code at CSTA’s 2014 conference.

Once I’m back, I’m slated to be at RAFT Colorado’s Summer Symposium for teacher training, and then doing a full-day teacher STEM experience with robots at Xsci.

It’s a full dance card for Mod Bot Edu, but we’re thrilled to have the opportunity to share our results and work directly with a wider group of awesome and inquisitive educators. We have our eye on a few new places to be and be seen in 2015 so don’t be surprised if you see us hitting the road again then!


Do you know how you can tell when a company gets a new marketing person?

They get a new website. A couple weeks ago Modular Robotics retired our trusty old site for a new one. With the launch of our new fanciness, comes my cue to introduce… myself. I’m Stu, Modular Robotics Marketing Dude and robot evangelist. Don’t panic, I’m not here to convert you to the Church of Robotology. I’m here because I seek to advance the memetic concept of robots and their impact on us as a species.


My goal at Modular Robotics is to convince the world that robots are a necessary component to our advancement as a species.

Naturally, you might be wondering if I’ve been sniffing too many solder fumes to posit such a hypothesis. The reality is that I spend my days pushing pixels rather than completing circuits. Occasionally, I get out from the glow of my Macbook and meet real people in the realm of the third dimension. After the initial shock of human contact wears off, I often find myself answering this question… “What are these robots for?”

If you’ve stumbled across this post… you should know that Modular Robotics makes robot constructions systems that are deceptively educational. By this, I mean our robot toys are a lot of fun and have some great life skills embedded into the play experience. Normally, I answer this question with something akin to “Modular Robotics makes robot construction systems that are designed to help kids understand the entangled nature of our world. Our systems are built to be fun and educational, so kids can develop an intuitive understanding of complex systems and design concepts.”

All of that is true, but it neglects to impart the vision of what I hope we can accomplish with Modular Robotics. I do what I do because I believe that these robot toys are the opening move in a game of chess that could result in humanity reaching fantastic new heights. I believe robots are a keystone technology in the progression of our species that will free up time necessary to solve our greatest challenges and provide the mechanisms we need to someday reach distant worlds.

This is a big concept and I don’t expect that this post will have swayed you in the slightest. It will take series of posts to discuss in detail. This post is to introduce myself and give you a peek into one of the many reasons why we do what we do at Modular Robotics.

Every once in a while we talk to a teacher who needs to double check that Modular Robotics lesson plans, activities, and curricula are free.  “Wait, you mean I can just download all of this stuff and use it in my classroom for free?”  Indeed.  We make our money selling tiny robots; it never actually occurred to us to charge for the other materials that make up our Education program.  Free material is one thing, now we’re trying to make this stuff more free.

One of our international education resellers recently asked us if they could print out some of our activities and lesson plans, put their logo on the front, and use that as a special bonus to try and sell more Cubelets.  A couple of us thought it was a weird request, a couple of us saw no problem with it.  Discussion ensued.

Modular Robotics’ mission is to make the world a better place with thousands of tiny robots.  Implicit in that is the notion that we want to have a really broad impact, that we want to enable as many kids as possible to use our robots to get a little smarter about the world.  It seems to us like the distribution strategy around all of these materials should be one of openness, encouraging, and remixing, not one of restriction.

We figured that adopting a license would be the best idea for these materials so that the terms are out in the open.  Instead of copyright, I’m proud to announce that all of Modular Robotics’ education materials like lesson plans, teacher training videos, curricula about complexity, engineering units and all future materials will be published with a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license.


The CC BY-SA license is the same one used by Wikipedia.  It means that you can use, remix, and modify the modbot education materials, and you can even sell the works that you create.  But anything that you do end up creating that derives from this stuff must also carry this same license, and you have to give credit to Modular Robotics for the initial work.  Remix!

Chocolate Santa (an affectionate nickname for Tony, our UPS guy) just picked up the first 40 MOSS kits from our little factory at Modular Robotics.  They’re headed out to our first 40 Kickstarter backers and thus, today marks an exciting milestone.  After almost three years in development, we’re shipping the MOSS Robot Construction System!  And it’s awesome.

Did you pledge on Kickstarter or pre-order for a MOSS Basic Builder Kit?  Ho, ho!  I have some good news for you.  We decided to upgrade all Basic Builder Kits to the Zombonitron 1600 Kit.  Extra parts!  In addition to everything that was in the Basic Builder, you’ll get a Brightness Sensor, an extra Corner Block, two extra Double Spans, and 26 more Steel Spheres.   In the months between the Kickstarter campaign and now, we’ve been building thousands of MOSS robots, and it turns out that these extra parts really expand the universe of robots that you can build with this kit.

MOSS Zombonitron Kits

We had estimated that we’d be able to ship in February, and we’re finally opening the MOSS pipeline in the last days of March.  If our delay screwed with your kid’s birthday or was annoying in another way, please accept my apology: I’m sorry we were late!

Honestly though, I’m blown away by how quickly and efficiently team Modbot moved to get MOSS from prototype to product.  MOSS has hundreds of parts in it, most are completely custom, and we’re assembling and testing everything in our own shop in Boulder, CO.  The complexity of this effort is astounding and I find myself extremely impressed that we’re shipping only a month or two late.  Cubelets took a year longer than planned and every other physical gadget I’ve supported on Kickstarter has shipped with a far longer delay than MOSS.

Last week I ended up in Valdez, Alaska.  It just happens to be the 25th anniversary of the oil spill, which I remember vividly watching and reacting to as a twelve year old.  That event did a lot to shape the way that I think about the world, but that’s another story.  Valdez is the end of the Trans Alaska pipeline, and seeing all of that infrastructure made me think a little bit about the Modular Robotics production pipeline that creates tiny robots and sends them out into the world.  Over the last month we’ve been able to assemble some MOSS modules but we’ve been waiting on parts to assemble others.  That creates a sort of MOSS reservoir at the beginning of the pipeline.  In the last week, as we’ve finally been able to build the few remaining modules in the Zombonitron 1600 kit, we’ve been able to open the valve and start shipping.  Right now it feels like we’re running only a trickle of water through our pipeline because we’re triple-testing everything and improving processes as we go.  But we’ve designed our pipeline to hold thousands and thousands of tiny robots at a time, so it’ll be fun to watch the volume increase over the next few months.

Kickstarter backers and pre-order friends, we’re amped to send out MOSS to you soon.  We don’t have an exact schedule of who gets what when yet, but as our pipeline stabilizes a bit and we have enough data to project, we’ll post better delivery estimates here.  For everyone else, we’ll have MOSS available on our web site as soon as we get the pre-orders out the door!  In the meantime, here are a few MOSS robots to tide you over.

We’re making a lot of progress transitioning MOSS from prototype to product. Engineering design was locked several months ago, injection moulds are made, and plastics for our first production run (to fulfill kickstarter pledges) will arrive in Boulder this week. We’ve already started to produce circuit boards on our SMT fabrication line!  Steel ball bearings are here and threaten to collapse our floor.

moss steel spheres

Colors are locked, and they’re gorgeous.  The photo below is a little wonky and still doesn’t show the colors accurately, but we just shot beautiful new pro photos and I’ll post them asap.  We vacillated a lot with color selection, made a last-hour decision to switch to a two-color face scheme, and then reversed that in a last-minute decision to in favor of the original four-color face scheme:

  • Green = Power
  • Red = Data Output
  • Brown = Data Input
  • Blue = Pass-through


We’re still on track to get the first MOSS kits out the door in February!

Urban Dictionary defines this divine device as: A fridge modified to contain a keg and dispense beer. What’s needed: old fridge, drill, tap, facuet, hose, CO2 tank, CO2 regulatior, and a keg. A quality home improvement for the weekend warrior.

We welcome you, our Kegerator from Mobile, AL. Yet another large machine for our factory and offices, and cause for a wonderful, spontaneous use of the word “majestic!” I suggest it receives a royal name befitting its status.




This week, our staff is exhibiting what can only be described as collaborative awesomeness in getting ready for CES. Travel arrangements are in full swing, checklists have been checked. And double checked.


Furniture has been built and crated for shipping.

These crates remind a few of us of the movie Jurassic Park, when the dinosaurs arrived
These crates remind a few of us of the movie Jurassic Park, when the dinosaurs arrived

It’s a flurry of activity around here, and it’s only the beginning. When we took a look at the event calendar, the truth dawned on us: we have at least one major event every month until August.

Game on, 2014. We’re thrilled to have so many cool venues for putting Cubelets and MOSS into people’s hands. I know that whenever I do a class, camp, teacher training or event, a light comes on as people start to make robots on their own.

As 2013 drew to a close, I was already feeling really pleased about all of the things Modular Robotics Education had done for the year. Classes, camps, museums, outreach, events and really building out our network. Getting to know our educational users and working directly with many of them lead to some amazing collaborations. The best of those lead to tangible wins, results, and take-aways for all the people involved. The best of the best lead to longer-term shared projects such as “how can we turn robot building into 5th graders learning programming?” or “let’s write a large unit on Engineering and design using Cubelets!”

As we kick-off 2014, I keep moving forward with big lesson planning projects and goals to delve into areas that might seem less obvious for creating robotics lesson plans and activities (Ecosystems and adaptation, math, literacy, and more!). I also am looking forward to working with more school districts, camps, and museums this year, as well as deepening our collaborations with those we’ve worked with in 2013.

And on top of that, my education contributions to our company’s whirlwind event schedule include appearing as an invited artist at Toronto International Film Festival’s Kids digiPlay space, us doing demos and workshops in D.C. at United States Science and Engineering Festival, and we’ll be speaking at conferences here in Colorado as well as in Atlanta for ISTE and at the Computer Science Teacher’s Association conference in Illinois!

See you out in the big world students and educators! We can’t wait to meet you and see what you do with Cubelets and MOSS in 2014.

Well, now!  That was fun.  The Kickstarter campaign for MOSS ran for a month, attracted pledges from 1578 would-be robot builders, and generated $361,293.

Work on MOSS continues at full speed at Modular Robotics.  All of our injection molded plastic parts are here, though some many of them need small changes.  The colors are getting closer too!  These whites are a little bit off and the face colors are a little dull and unsaturated, but you get the idea.


I wrote a couple of weeks ago about programming for MOSS.  We had just gotten an explosion of attention from our launch on Kickstarter, and the alpha-geek, early-adopter community started asking about programming.  I didn’t have a good answer, but since then, we’ve had some time to decide what we’ll build first.  We just announced two programming tools as stretch goals for the campaign.

MOSS Flash.  At a base level, we want our hacker friends to have full capability to reprogram, repurpose, and remix MOSS to accomplish whatever they want.  The first thing we’re going to build is MOSS Flash, and it’s a desktop application that lets you reprogram the microcontroller inside any MOSS Bluetooth or MOSS Brain module in C.  We’re not going to build an IDE yet, you can use whatever editor and file management tools you like, but you’ll be able to start with a few sample programs, modify them or write new ones, and just drag the files onto the super-simple MOSS Flash window to compile and reprogram a connected MOSS module via Bluetooth.  We’ll probably build this in Node.js and much of the code is already written for our own use at modbot testing and debugging new MOSS programs.  The code for basic functionality won’t be the hard part in building MOSS Flash, though.  Documentation and designing the tutorials and materials that support open-ended programming will be hard, and building tools to help with debugging (regular C compiler output is often not particularly helpful) will be hard.

MOSS Scratch.  With low-level access for the die hard programmers covered by MOSS Flash, we also want to create a second way to program MOSS robots, something higher-level that can serve as an entry point for young inventors or for those who don’t get off on semicolons.  We picked Scratch, and we’ve already started working on a MOSS Scratch extension that will provide MOSS blocks that you can integrate with the normal Scratch blocks and a custom online compiler that will customize a Scratch script to run natively on the micro inside of a MOSS module.  The mechanism for adding extensions to Scratch is in beta right now but it looks really promising and the Scratch team has expressed enthusiasm and support for the integration with MOSS.  I think the progression of creating on-screen animations and then behaviors for a physical robot could be a pretty effective learning tool, and honestly, my mind is a little blown right now thinking of the cyclical nature of progress what with Grey Walter’s turtles, then Logo, then Scratch, and now back to robots.

Want to program your MOSS robots?  Me too.  We have some work to do building and testing these development tools, but we also have a pretty amazing engineering team.  If the Kickstarter campaign hits the $564k mark, we’ll plan to have both of these tools ready in June 2014 and ideally we’ll put up a beta of MOSS Flash right around when we ship the first MOSS kits.

The cool thing about construction kits is that there are so many of them. A good construction kit abstracts something difficult away and lets kids build at a level that they wouldn’t normally be able to build at on their own. LEGO® abstracts away joinery, Erector Sets abstract away measurement, MOSS abstracts a lot of the complexity involved in kinematics, and Cubelets asbtract away the Sense, Think, and Act behaviors that make a robot.

Now, with these little adapter plates, you can combine the best parts of Cubelets and LEGO® to build robots that not only function, but do so with flair.  They’re simple: little yellow plastic plates with a Cubelet connector on one side and a LEGO® connector on the other.  From now through the end of the day on December 2, we’re including a free four-pack of Brick Adapters with every Cubelets order over $75.