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Thousands of Tiny Robots

The Modular Robotics Blog

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.

Is it weird for me to post on our blog about engineering?

Aside from our production staff of assembly elves who busily and fabulously make Cubelets, our largest staff contingent is Engineers, and I’m not on it. We have firmware, hardware, mechanical, electrical, and software engineers. I share an office with several of the Modular Robotics engineers, but I keep my feet firmly planted in “Education.”  Still, today, I want to say a bit about engineering.

In my early life, I was the child of an engineer. A lot of people think of engineers this way:

pocket-protectorAnd, don’t get me wrong, we did have quite a thing about graph paper, mechanical pencils, and protractors in my house growing up (most memorably, when designing Jack-o’-lantern faces in October). But my strongest memories of absorbing engineering by osmosis have a lot more to do with being asked to make a deliberate practice of defining a challenge and naming possible solutions – in my homework, in the kitchen, and in how we did chores and laundry and leaf-raking.

I’ve read scary statistics about workforce readiness and the state of our education to prepare students to be innovators, problem solvers, and engineers. things like, At the current growth rate of engineering jobs we will produce only one-third of the engineer educated students we need to fill those jobs in 10 years. I’m not sure how to verify the accuracy of these numbers, and of course, they depend on a lot of multi-variate and ever-changing factors.

I suspect the point of these statements is to get us all thinking about what we can do differently for our children and students and schools. So, on that criteria, this statement works for me. I thought about how privileged I was to grow up with engineering in my life, and indeed, my home. I also realized how awesome it is to work here surrounded by engineers and to be reintroduced to the language and unique problem solving processes engineers use. (It’s not uncommon to hear our staff saying “Can we pursue a solution that gets around that constraint? or “How can we reverse engineer that?” about non-engineering challenges.)

And I went away and, with the help of a four amazing collaborators from Science Matters, wrote the first installment of an Engineering and Design Principles unit! Students can learn valuable engineering approaches from making robots, and while we’ll add more lesson plans to this unit in the future, I wanted to get it out there now and see what teachers, camps, and clubs thought if it. Enjoy this collection of 5 lesson plans (soon to be more!) individually, or as a progression and unit of learning to introduce engineering as a cool way of approaching science and design together with your students – and be sure to let us know what you think!


It’s been a fun few days!  We launched MOSS on Kickstarter on Thursday and hit the $100k goal in less than 12 hours.  The pledges continue to roll in.  We’ve been celebrating and a fair number of us are committed to a round of Car Bombs at every hundred thousand dollars.

We’re psyched, but not surprised.  We picked $100k as a goal because we thought that we could hit it on the first day and that that success would be a whole story in itself.  The whole point of launching on kickstarter was to make a broad impact.  I’ll write about our decision to launch on kickstarter and the results later, though.  Now I’d like to address software.  Some people have asked about reprogramming MOSS modules.  Please forgive my long-form answer.

There are a few “levels of play” with MOSS.  Out of the box, people can snap modules and spheres together to build all sorts of reactive robots: robots that react to their environment by sensing and actuating.

With an iOS or Android device handy, kids can pair with a Bluetooth Module in a MOSS robot and control and communicate with their robot.  By February, we’ll have the three first apps (all free) ready to use.  MOSS Control is a panel of sliders that allows you to remote control (or remotely read data) on any of the 8 faces on the Bluetooth Module.  MOSS Log can graph (and export) sensor values over time, and MOSS Etch is a drawing program that can use Knobs, Distance sensors, and other various modules as inputs.

Advanced users and older kids will hopefully want to reprogram their MOSS modules.  And they will be able to!  But we haven’t decided exactly how.  At modbot, we all reprogram our MOSS Bluetooth modules by digging deep into C source code and sticking a little ISP header made from pogo pins onto an exposed PCB.  But this is not the way to encourage kids to program.

For Cubelets, we exposed an API to enable people to reprogram in C, but on the level of “neighbors” and “sensors” instead of pin change interrupts and all of the nasty little bits that go along with microcontroller programming.  We built Cubelets Code to reprogram from a browser window and Cubelets Studio as a standalone mac program.  We’ve learned a lot from these experiments.

Yes, you will be able to reprogram MOSS modules by writing C code.  But we haven’t decided what’s next from there.  We’re thinking about the API and at what level people can best interact with MOSS.  We’re playing with boxes and arrows languages like Max/MSP and block languages like Scratch.  We’ve discussed open sourcing everything.  We have a crazy idea about using Finite State Machines to program MOSS.  We’ve thought about using Arduino.  Should we virtual machine it?  It’s super fun testing out all of the options as part of our design process for a programming system, but right now we don’t know exactly where it’s going to end up!

Oh, did you make it all the way to the end and get a little disappointed because there aren’t any robots here?  I did too.  How about this card conveying robot?  It was Neville’s idea, Jon built it, and I get to show it off.

I love Cubelets. I feel like my identity is pretty closely tied to those little robotic cubes. You might have discovered Cubelets just now, or maybe you’ve had a kit for a year, but I’ve been working on Cubelets since 2006. That’s a decent chunk of my adult life! It feels like it’s been a really long time since I’ve been able to show off something brand new, so it’s particularly exciting for me to introduce you to MOSS.

MOSS is a brand-new construction kit for building dynamic little robots.  We’ve been working on it in secret for almost three years and we’re launching on Kickstarter. The video does a far better job of explaining how it works than I could here, so please take a look!