Thousands of Tiny Robots

The Modular Robotics Blog

Molex is a big, 75-year-old company that makes electronics connectors and other little fiddly bits that you’ll find in iPhones, network gear, and consumer electronics. Today, Molex announced that they were going to be acquired by Koch Industries. If you don’t know or care who the creepy Koch brothers are, then super, we’re done here. But if you do, I thought I’d mention that Modular Robotics uses no Molex connectors in any of our products, and after today’s news we’ve written that rule into our design guidelines for all future products.

We do a lot of testing to make sure Cubelets are safe for kids. A few swallowed magnets or an exploding Cubelet would be the end of us, just like it might be the end of a young user. I don’t mean to be grim, but this stuff is serious. It was one thing when we had a few prototype Cubelets that we were showing off in 2010, it’s another thing now: there are thousands and thousands of Cubelets out into the world being played with, left in car trunks, and accidentally dropped in toilets. Our reach has gotten a lot broader recently and we alternate between total confidence and the worry that even one accidental mishap could have disastrous ramifications. So we test. We drop a lot of Cubelets onto Type IV linoleum tile, for example.

We design a lot of tests on our own, both for safety and reliability, but we also test according to national standards. For the USA, we test against the ASTM, CPSIA, and FCC standards. In Europe, we use the EN71s, the EN62115 electrical test, and the EN55014 EMC test.

The other day I found Stephane in the parking lot exploding some batteries.  BLAM!  Note safety goggles and IR thermometer.

Some of these tests require that we send a few boxes of Cubelets off to a special lab to get certified. Some of the tests can be done ourselves. Either way, we need to know the standards so that we make sure our designs comply long before we actually send something in for its official test. Know what irks me? That these tests are not posted online for free access. The ASTM test is $72. Each of the EU tests is $300!

Sometimes it’s super-expensive to send Cubelets out to be tested. For some recent testing toward the CE mark, we got quotes ranging from $8,000 to $27,000. I’m OK with both the cost (it takes a tremendous amount of time to test products thoroughly) and the requirements that certified, external labs do the testing. But the standards? They should be freely available to inventors, tinkerers, and grandparents so that they too can have the broadest possible impact.

If I were in charge, I’d change the mission of the toy safety committies to: “Make toys safer.” Putting the recipes for how to do this behind a ridiculous paywall doesn’t help to achieve that mission at all.

Recently, I worked with a really cool and diverse group of teachers and librarians at Colorado RAFT Teacher Symposium. When I was approached to do this and heard it was a three hour workshop, I was unconditionally thrilled. A whole morning with creative teachers who are invested in hands-on education (why else would they be involved with RAFT?) and Cubelets? Pick me.

Others expressed doubts – what will you do with them for three hours? Won’t you get tired? Won’t they get bored?

I’ve been doing fast-and-snappy teacher professional development workshops since April and had some practice laps in, so I felt ready. For me, the key is paying attention to what teachers want, what they need, and determining where we can fit in.

After my first time offering teachers a chance to play with Cubelets, I remember being psyched with how little time it took adults to stoop down on their hands and knees in order to build driving, racing robots. I have a background in training instructors, so I wasn’t nervous to train a room of teachers; but I was pleased to witness that the level of active curiosity I see with kids and Cubelets bubbles up in adults too.


Offering more teacher professional development workshops wasn’t only good practice for me, it meant I learned more specifics about what teachers want. I heard teachers commenting that educators need to talk about STEAM, not just STEM. (The ‘A’ is for Arts. And after all, engineers design and make. And that does lead right back to the arts.) I listened well when teachers said they needed clever ways to teach cause and effect. I paid attention when teachers mentioned how popular robotics was in STEM right now, and how hard it is to find an options that will “start kids off” before engaging with robotics kits that require programming.

Most memorably, on my third try at teacher professional development, I heard some teachers who had not been in my workshop gabbing in the hall. They didn’t know I was behind them and said, “The last thing I want as a teacher is someone who hasn’t had to do it in the classroom trying to tell me how something will go with my students as a way of hard selling me.”

YUP! Iloathe the “hard sell” approach. I’d hate it even more if someone tried to tell me what would and wouldn’t work in my classrooms without having any experience with any students, much less my students.

For this reason that I do my best to test each and every lesson plan idea I have on real students. I do this not because I want to have a more convincing sell to teachers, but rather, because I want our lesson plans to impart real, use-in-your-classes value when teachers, camps, and schools do buy Cubelets.

Bonus: this frees me up to do what works anyways – let the Cubelets do the talking! I jabber for just a few minutes and then focus  on listening to good educator ideas and facilitating teachers to play and learn. In short, I’m back to seeing how fast I can get teachers playing, letting their inner-child bring out their creativity and mixing it with their expertise about what their students, classrooms, and schools need.


I often find that  people (of all ages) gain deeper comprehension of “what do they do” once they have their hands on Cubelets, than if I stand, demo, and talk about them. It’s not that questions don’t come up. Of course they do! But answering them is far easier and more enjoyable when people can try things out live. Teachers especially want to see things in action.

For this three hour session I saw teachers on their hands and knees playing with their robots. I saw art teachers making robots, and then hastily and creatively constructing environments for their robots. I saw teams of educators making robots that react to other robots and dubbing it, “the robot dance party. “ I had teachers joke that they were using the “force” (Distance Cubelet) to control driving robots and comment on how kids could see this as magic, but then investigate what was causing that “magic.”

More substantially I heard teachers ask (and answered):

“I want something for teens and tweens to do that will inspire them to use technology for more than texting and Youtube.”

We’re really interested in students gaining intuitions about systems, logic, and computational thinking in tangible, immediate ways that give them feedback so that they can more confidently take on wanting to engineer, design, or write code in abstract ways.

“I want my art students to think about design like this.”

We love seeing students (and teachers!) design by pulling things apart and re-configuring them so fast they almost don’t have time to articulate their plan!

“Can I ask you more about emergent behavior? When I hear “behavior” I think of the students’ behaviors in class but as I’m making this robot, I think you mean something different.”

This was one of my favorite questions to answer!  “Because each Cubelet has exactly one function people often think the way to track ‘how many’ they can make has to do just with the counting (or combinatorics) of each Cube, function, or the faces on the Cubelets. But sometimes as you’re adding functions and the Cubelets are sending and receiving information from more than one other Cubelet, behaviors emerge that you didn’t plan or design. It’s what makes people refer to Cubelets robots as animals or people-like even though they are the least android-looking robots I’ve ever seen.”

“These robots are different from other robots, aren’t they? There’s no brain pieces – they are all sharing data.”

Yes! Cubelets robots are a distributed system. That sounds technical. Another way to say it is that every component is parallel and “talks” directly to one another. Imagine if your foot was connected directly to your ears, with no brain mediating sensory information or reactions.

“What’s the youngest you’ve seen students ‘get it’ with these?”

I’ve seen a child who wasn’t yet 3 years old build sense-act robots successfully and ask me enough questions to use ALL of the senses and actions!

“What’s the oldest you’ve seen students still stay motivated and engaged with Cubelets?”

We know that the shape and colors of Cubelets gives them the gross-motor, young child, Pre-K look. Pre-schoolers can “get it” with minimal support and the right set-up. But as older students get their hands on Cubelets, they too get it, and add layers of sophistication, posing their own questions and challenges, and then setting themselves up to construct the right investigation to answer themselves. Quite simply, I’ve been amazed with what students do with Cubelets from ages not-yet-three up to 18!

“Do you think this could be used for Special Ed science?”

Yes! Since I’ve seen kids from Pre-K all the way up to 12th grade work with Cubelets in developmentally appropriate ways, I could easily find the point on that continuum that your Special Ed student(s) matched up with and make adjustments that would make a Cubelets Lesson plan work!

But mostly what I heard was “Come look at what I made!”

Not that different from what happens when I pack up Cubelets and take them into schools and camps full of kidos! Lots of excitement and discovery – not surprising. After all, all the best educators I know work with students because they found ways to learn enjoyably and wanted to pass it on. Of course these same people know how to locate their inner-excited-student!

Watch how the three big machines in our Surface Mount Technology (SMT) line create circuit boards for Cubelets in our Boulder, Colorado factory. We’ve made a lot of changes to our production line recently and each machine automates a task that we used to do by hand. Now we get vastly quicker and better results and can make thousands more Cubelets per week than before.


Don’t let educators and instructors fool you by their use of words like “pedagogy” and “paradigm.” We know how to have a good time.

I’ve known this for a long time in my career whether I’ve been a camp director, after school educator and curriculum writer, working in a pre-school setting or with college students. When the day is done, the lesson plans prepared, and the papers are graded, friends in the “biz” are not only great party-mates but creative in their pursuit of fun. With this in mind, we decided to host some of our closest friends and allies in education here for a dinner party with equal parts fun, learning, good food, and good times.

Since it was our first foray into hosting a community of people who are excited not just about Cubelets, but also about a better way for students to learn, we kept it to a fairly small group hoping they would all get to know each other and be part of a continuing conversation. (Never fear – we’ll do this again, and next time it could be your turn!)

IMG_1973 (1)

We’re lucky to know so many quality Modular Robotics enthusiasts that we could draw together educators representing a lot of variety – Pre-K to high school, from arts and electronics to engineering and robotics, and from public school teacher to retired software engineer/new after school program leader to our friends at SparkFun. Smart, imaginative, and every single one fired up by the idea of how to share ideas and raise hands-on education above the level of playtime.

This kind of talk sounds lofty and high-horsed. I know I have particular ideas about what people should learn and how that can be achieved. I also know I’m not alone. What was special about this gathering was not that it was a crowd of followers, but rather a community of people who each have particular ideas, but care more about sharing those ideas in powerful ways than beating down other perspectives.

Food and fun help bring these kinds of groups together in a positive way, of course, so as hosts we did our part to treat our guests to entertaining education and yummies.
IMG_1966I’ve been working with a number of science programs that have schooled me in the language of claims and evidence so let me tell this next part of the story in that STEM-speak.

Claim: Even if our dinner menu had been less stellar, the company we gathered would still have collaborated on creative ideas that blew me away.

Evidence: In the “Cubelets Dinner Party Challenge” part of the evening they created chicken and cow robots! Starting with a simple robot (no more than 5-6 Cubelets) they tinkered and came up with robots representing farm animals. Never in my wildest imagination would I have predicted that!



Did I tell you educators knew how to have fun?

We are privileged to be parts of the kinds of learning communities that deeply consider the role of building and making, coding vs. computational thinking, student-lead and discovery-based learning, and how to support authentic and lasting learning. I’ve shared these moments with our education friends in classes with their students as we excitedly watched what students created and discovered. I’ve had these moments meeting with our allies over coffee and beer. I’ve had this moment at events and conferences too, but I don’t want these moments just to be warm memories that sustain me at my desk. So, it seemed only fitting that we would take the next step and not just be members of that community, but hosts that help build and sustain it.

What emerged was grander even than that – a genuine desire, from everyone at the table, to be part of a movement changing what students learn, and how they learn it. My kind of party. 



Sometimes I think about not having the classical robotics education in my bag of tricks (educator and Cognitive Psychologist over here, so I’ve spent much more time thinking about humans, rats, philosophy and AI than about Mindstorms in my professional past).

I wanted to learn more in order to better discuss robotics with whip-smart high school students competing in robotics challenges. Most of these students, somewhere along the way, build maze solvers. Why? Well, that’s a little hard to package into a neat, one-sentence answer, but it has a lot to do with Cognition and AI and engineering those qualities into devices.

Here’s our version, with a twist – most robotics is “top down” with a central brain or program controlling sensors and actuators. Cubelets are a parallel and distributed system. So, we set out to make a maze-solver with a plan to use the Bluetooth Cubelet and to program a Cubelets maze solver.

Follow this recipe:

1. First, work at the coolest robotics toy company ever.

2. Build a robot with Cubelets.

2a. Worry that Cubelets don’t have central brains.

3. Decide to reprogram your robot. (This is where the Bluetooth Cubelet comes in)

4. Assemble a crack team to build a maze, define the problem, and iteratively code and test. Spend several hours on this.

5. That night, run this by your best friend who reminds you that often the best way out of a maze is to keep one hand on the wall at all times and just keep following that.

6. Say that to the co-founder of the company.

7. Wait 10 minutes

8. Take this video of the “brainless” robot he built successfully solving our simple maze (without re-programing!). Huzzah!



Everyone likes to win, and we’re no exception. This month, we won the distinguished Tibbetts award, which the USA Small Business Administration gives annually to a handful of the companies that it’s funded through its Small Business Innovative Research grants. The award recognizes companies “for the critical role they play in research and development for the government and for their success in driving innovation and creating new jobs.” This year eighteen companies received Tibbetts awards, which — considering that the SBIR program funds over $2.5 billion each year in eleven government departments and agencies — makes it a pretty big deal. And props back at you, NSF: we wouldn’t be where we are today without our early funding from the National Science Foundation.

Hi Internet. I’m Nev. I’m an engineer here at Modular Robotics.

Remember this post about the big decision to build a factory here in Boulder, Colorado? I’m one of the results of that decision. I was hired in March to help design and build automation systems to build and test thousands and thousands of tiny robots.

A big part of engineering is understanding the requirements of the customer so that their needs can be met. In the past, I’ve done engineering work for all kinds of folks. I worked on medical devices for a while, so I got to hang out with doctors and nurses and EMTs to learn about how they used existing medical devices and what they’d like to change. Later, I worked with a company building big robots to repair water and oil pipelines, so I met with beefy construction workers and contractors to learn about what kind of abuse a robot might expect on a worksite.

Now I’m making robotic toys for kids, so I spent a day with Christie, Sawyer, and Michael at STEMosphere in Denver, Colorado. This is a free convention to encourage creativity and entrepreneurship in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields. There were all kinds of science-y exhibits where kids could do things like rip apart old office electronics, engage in epic robot battle, shoot off pneumatic rockets, learn to solder, and lots more. This was a really cool opportunity, since it gave us a chance to introduce and demonstrate Cubelets to kids, parents, and teachers, and it also let me experience how kids interacted with Cubelets and gave me insight into the most effective ways to build and test the toys.

We showed up early to hang the Cubelets banner above our booth.

Banner Hanging

Perhaps a bit too early.

upsidedown banner

A cup (or three) of coffee later, we were ready to go.

banner success

A short while later, the kids started showing up. In droves. I had heard rumors of the amazing power of Cubelets to draw a crowd, and after only a couple hours our table had been pushed back to the bleachers. We had to clear everyone out for a moment to pick the table up and move it back to the line of booths.

Busy Cubelets table2

I got to build a couple of my favorite robots, like the steering bot and the line follower. The kids got to build a bunch of their favorite robots, like this awesome lighthouse.

One of the coolest things was seeing kids who had never played with Cubelets before figure out how to use them. It starts with pure structure: they stick Cubelets together to make something that looks like what they want to build. Then, as they play more, they start to understand the different functions of each Cubelet, and alter their creations to perform a desired action. This is where one of the really cool things about Cubelets becomes apparent: the form and function of every robot are directly linked. As kids realized this, the robots became more and more advanced.

I think that the most amazing thing was seeing the kids’ reactions change as they played. When they first start building with Cubelets, they are a bit mystified by them. Then maybe a bit of confusion, and some frustration. Then comes understanding, and finally wonder at what they have created.

Seeing this reminded me of why I became an engineer. Sure, part of engineering is about identifying and meeting customer needs as efficiently as possible…but it’s also about playing, learning, and creating. I think it’s wonderful that events like STEMosphere exist to show kids the amazing things science can do, and I’m really proud to be building toys that are helping to create thousands and thousands of tiny engineers.

What does deep space have to do with Cubelets? I have both funny and serious answers to that question.

Serious first: Someday I hope to see students at camps thinking about NASA, space ventures to Mars and beyond, astro-biology, and robotics using Cubelets. It goes without saying that I wouldn’t be working here if I didn’t have an almost religious belief in the importance of all students understanding the principles of science. But I have maybe even a stronger desire for all students to appreciate and experience that amazing undertakings are achieved in little steps. Moreover, the greatest feats are accomplished and accumulate most appreciably when teams of dedicated people bring the full weight of their technical expertise, skills and knowledge, and personality to bear on a team. Sometimes I explain Cubelets robots to young children this way – that each function contributes its work to a larger process and becomes part of a “team” that makes a robot. But, if we’re really talking about huge, massive, previously unthinkable accomplishments it would be almost insulting not to mention Curiosity because nothing beats a seriously cool robot landing on Mars or seeing a room full of engineers celebrate years of work coming to fruition. Plus, in case you missed it, one of those engineers is now immortalized as “Mohawk Guy.” Rad.

Now for the less-than-serious: I’m one of the older people here at Modular Robotics and grew up on The Muppets. I really can’t hear the word “space” and not also think “Pigs in.” It was epic, and always one of my favorite segments. Just that echoing voice saying it, “Piiiiigggs Iiiinnn Spaay-yaaccee.” Yes.

So, when we began discussing a collaboration with a business owner who told us his venture was called Deep Space Parker I was a more than a little intrigued. Over the weeks of talking to Deep Space Parker’s founder, Brian, we’ve become good friends and we consider him a great example of a non-traditional educator. As in, he may not have a degree in education or lead a classroom of 2nd graders but that’s not stopping him from wanting to contribute to the local education scene. When he invited us to not only exhibit but to teach a short robot class, of course the answer was yes!

In addition to seeing our good friends and early-adopters of Cubelets, Ameribotics, we also got a chance to interact with other tech and robotics programs for kids including Sharc and FIRST Robotics as well as several others. It’s great to be part of such an esteemed group, but for me the real motivation to do events like this is to put Cubelets into the hands of kids and educators. The best moments are when a child first hooks up a Battery, Sense, and action Cube and they make the classic Oh-My-GOODNESS face of joy and awe as they see they’ve created a robot that does something cool. This moment is always so brief as kids then get down to business – once they’ve made one robot that works they set themselves very quickly to the task of making more, bigger, and more sophisticated robots!

One of the things that’s so great about building robots with Cubelets is that it’s so scalable. Little roboticists, like this 3 year-old, can get a handle on building simple, yet incredibly satisfying, robots.



At the same time a middle-schooler at our table can be considering what it means to have a robot with multiple senses and multiple actions.



Exhibiting is fun, especially when you’re working with fun team mates



But I was especially psyched to teach a short robotics workshop for parents and kids to build robots together.



One of the things I love most about the kinds of learning Cubelets robots lends itself to is that parents and kids start out on an equal footing. It’s an awesome feeling to see parents and kids trying ideas together, testing out a theory, making joint design decisions, and teaching each other as they figure out the sense-think-act relationships they’re building.

One of the better moments of the night was when Deep Space Founder, Brian, took some time out from his evening to come and play at our table. He brought along a Cubelets expert, his daughter. She got him up to speed quickly, and then he asked me for some challenges. He and his daughter worked really hard to understand how to best use the Think blocks in their joint robot build.


I left them with a challenge and Brian has been emailing me with updates ever since then. Cubelets on the brain, as well as in Deep Space then!

I’m looking forward to seeing how Brian and Deep Space move forward with creating a multi-use space for office-share during the day and a space for after-school programs and events at night. Thanks for having us!


Since the first week of my employment with Modular Robotics, I’ve been hearing production staff talk about the process of getting a stencil printer with great enthusiasm. Someone talked to the vendor and mentioned that a stencil printer had been found for a good price on my second or third day here. Then, there was work involved to determine price and how to get it here. More talk of the much-anticipated stencil printer the next week in order to plan going to see it, get a basic training on running it, and make sure it worked. It’s been mentioned in our daily staff meeting roughly once a week, for one reason or another, for the last 12 weeks. But the thing that caused MY ears to perk up was when someone casually mentioned, “Yeah, when we load in a new piece of equipment, we rent a forklift. Wanna drive it? It’s fun.”

Now, don’t get me wrong, the stencil printer is a sleek and space-age-looking piece of machinery. I don’t want to diminish the importance of this piece of machinery that’s been awaited so eagerly. ( I have it on good authority that we’ll be blogging about all of the wonderful things it will mean for the incremental upgrade of Cubelets production in the very near future.) But, a stencil printer sits in one place and a forklift not only GOES but lifts things. I cannot tell a lie – I was pretty dern excited about the forklift. Especially after hearing about it for weeks! As it turns out, I didn’t get to drive it (and you’ll see why), but never fear, I know we’ll rent a forklift again. And in the meantime, our forklift fun illustrates some of the things I most adore about working here – the creative and entrepreneurial impulse to just jump in and try things, our collaborative problem solving culture, and our seemingly boundless ability to laugh at ourselves.

Enjoy a re-cap of our stencil printer delivery and forklift fun via these pictures and captions –  it was an interesting week.

April 14, 2013 – On the day before the stencil printer arrived . . .
It started snowing like it meant business, but this deterred no one from cleaning up our factory floor . . . and then jumping in our new dumpster.

April 15th – The Stencil Printer arrived!
And it made Matthew happy. And this was good.

By April 19th, more people had thoughts on what we could do with the forklift.
Such as lifting things up on high and then dropping them with a clamor.

Of course, we’d all forgotten that all of the snow from earlier in the week melted, transforming our lawn into a silent trap for the mighty, but heavy, forklift.

Sadly, our friend the forklift was stuck. But we were good-natured about it, assuming that with all our combined skill-sets we could solve this dilemma. Surely, with the number of engineers here alone, that would take care of it!

We tried pushing the forklift out in two different ways.
It turns out forklifts weigh more than 2 tons! (Who knew!) So, these efforts were in vain.

We tried lifting it UP (Go, go gadget pallet jack!)

And weighing it DOWN (Hi Carl! Hi Michael!)

These attempts were to no avail. So, in a last ditch effort, we tried “polo-malletting” wood under the tires.

We tried lots of things, and though our character building was great, and our critical thinking well-honed, our friend the forklift was still stuck. In the end, the answer was simple.

 Call the tow truck!