Before I start getting too ambitious with making my personal rover project more like a user-friendly commercial product, I should look around to see if a product already existed. There are a lot of robot kits out there trying to earn that STEM education money, and some of them do try to get a slice of the excitement around our interplanetary robotic explorers. And while some of them are interesting and have their own merits, most of them lack features that I consider critical in a rover relative.
A representative example is the Space Rover Inventor Kit from littleBits. I like the idea of littleBits, giving beginners a very friendly way to explore electronics by making components with magnetic connectors. This makes electrical connections easy and also helps avoid beginner mistakes like accidentally reversing electrical polarity. The downside is that the customer has to pay a premium for this capability, and it’s not a premium that I’ve been personally willing to pay. This particular kit has a MSRP of $200 USD, and for that kind of money I would much rather build my own robot. (Though at time of this posting, the kit is on sale for $30.)
As a supplement to generic electronics beginner kits, littleBits also apply their technology to some themed offerings like this Space Rover kit. All the electrical components are reusable and remixable littleBits centered around a robot control module. The module is interesting because it interacts with a phone app, giving the rover remote control capabilities. But I also see the app as a disadvantage: as I understand it, the app would discourage experimentation. If the user changes the rover around, it wouldn’t take much before it exceeds what the phone app can gracefully handle. Thus motivating the user to leave it in the space rover configuration, defeating the point of using littleBits to begin with.
But in my eyes the biggest shortfall of this rover is its two-wheeled differential drive chassis. Similar to what home robot vacuums like Roomba uses. This is fine for flat indoor ground, which is what earthbound rovers mostly end up doing anyway. So as a home education toy this is a good technical choice. But for fans of rocker-bogie like myself, this is sorely lacking and we must look elsewhere.
But at least this little Space Rover has an arm. Looks like it only has one degree of freedom, which is very limiting, but that’s one more degree of freedom than Sawppy’s nonexistent robot arm. Victory: littleBits Space Rover!