AWS launches new robotics programs

To kick of re:Invent, AWS’s flagship conference, the cloud computing giant today announced IoT RoboRunner, a new service for building applications that help large fleets of robots work together. This new service aims to provide the infrastructure necessary to build the work and fleet management applications necessary to run the kind of robot fleets that Amazon itself utilizes in its warehouses, for example.

The company also today announced a new robotics accelerator program.

At its core, RoboRunner helps developers build applications that integrate with robots from different manufacturers and manage the lifecycle of these applications. Currently, AWS argues, it’s too difficult to integrate robots from different vendors into a single system, leaving enterprises with a number of silos where they manage their robots, which in turn makes it hard to build applications where these heterogeneous fleets cooperate.

Image Credits: AWS

RoboRunner provides developers with a centralized data repository for their entire fleet, as well as a registry for modeling all of the destinations in a given facility and a registry for keeping track of all of the tasks performed by these robots.

The target customer for this service is large industrial enterprises that operate fleets of automated guided vehicles, mobile robots and robotic arms.

In addition to RoboRunner, AWS also announced a new robotics startup accelerator, the AWS Robotics Startup Accelerator, in collaboration with MassRobotics.

“Today, there are only a few successful commercial robotics companies, and there are a few big reasons for this,” AWS CTO Werner Vogels writes in today’s announcement. “First, finding a fit in the robotics product market is difficult because real-world environments are dynamic and unpredictable, so pairing the right niche with the right capabilities can be a challenge. Second, building robots with a high degree of autonomy and intelligence requires multidisciplinary skills that are hard to find and recruit for. Third, robotics is capital intensive and requires large up-front investment in sensors, actuators, and mechanical hardware even when they’re already commercially available.”

The new program is open to early-stage startups (less than $10 million in revenue and $100 million raised. The selected companies will get access to specialized training and mentorship from robotics experts and up to $10,000 in AWS credits.  

Robotics startup FJDynamics raises $70M to make manual labor easier

FJDynamics, founded by DJI’s former chief scientist Wu Di, just closed a Series B round of $70 million as it advances its goal to empower workers in the harshest environment with robotic technologies.

When I asked Wu what’s special about his company’s farming robots, he gave an answer that would make any publicist sweat: “I don’t think our technology is that special.” The startup’s vision, he said, is to make useful and affordable robots for the most labor-intensive industries.

“You can have the most advanced AI algorithms,” he continued, “But if the technology doesn’t work on the production line or the farm, because you don’t have any industry experience, then how does your technology benefit people?”

The technologies that Wu worked on before FJDynamics were cutting-edge in every sense. At DJI, he served as the chief scientist and oversaw the drone giant’s acquisition of the 180-year-old Swedish format camera maker Victor Hasselblad AB in 2017. Before returning to China, he spent a decade in Sweden, during which he earned a PhD in domain-specific processor design. He also worked as a vice principal at fabless semiconductor company Coresonic AB and a director at the Swedish luxury sports car maker Koenigsegg AB.

“After seeing all these first-class technologies, it’s a stretch to say we [FJDynamics] are a high-tech company,” said the founder, who donned a slightly faded checkered shirt and a pair of thin-rimmed glasses on the morning of our interview.

We were sitting in a makeshift meeting room, a partition comprising a few desks separated from the rest of the open-plan office by movable walls. The company, located in Shenzhen’s bustling tech hub Shenzhen, was fast expanding and approaching 1,000 employees.

Wu Di, founder and CEO of FJDynamics

In 2019, Wu left DJI to start FJDynamics. The company set out with a focus on agricultural robots, building tools like unmanned lawnmowers, orchard sprayers and feed pushing machines. It has since ventured into other fields that depend heavily on manual work, such as construction and manufacturing.

As Beijing invokes a digital upgrade in the country’s traditional industries, Chinese companies like FJDynamics are in hot demand by investors. FJDynamics itself has attracted a rank of heavyweight financiers, including Tencent and state-owned automaker Dongfeng Asset Management. DJI had a stake in the company early on but has since sold off its shares.

It declined to name its sole investor in its latest Series B round and only said it is a major internet firm in China. The funding, the company said, will allow it to “grow its suite of robotics automation technology across agriculture, facility management, construction and gardening, along with supporting the increasing demand of the company’s ESG product offerings in over 60 countries.”

Over the years, a handful of engineers have left DJI to set up their own shops or join others’ fledgling projects. Portable battery maker EcoFlow, hairdryer Zuvi, electric toothbrush brand Evowera are among the most high-profile ones. For Wu, what drove him away from a prestigious position at the world’s largest drone company was a sense of disconnection he felt making “luxury” hardware.

“If you look at how robotic technology is being applied, there are a lot of companies using drones and autonomous vehicles. But the majority of people on earth aren’t benefiting from it.”

“Agriculture, construction, gardening… Work conditions in these sectors are physically demanding and there are still a lot of us doing this kind of job. The question is how we use robotic technology to improve their work environment, and that doesn’t mean simply replacing them with robots,” said the founder.

Image Credits: FJDynamics’ cow feed pusher, printed with the logo of Sveaverken, a Swedish farming company it acquired

One of FJDynamics’ popular products is the automated feed pusher. To produce high-quality milk, cows need to be fed about ten times throughout the day. The routine requires farms to have staff on-site 24 hours. A farm with 500 cows, for example, needs about three grass feeders to take shifts. But in poorer countries, farms can’t afford to have as many workers and staff could be out tending to the cows all day even in the coldest season.

FJDynamics aims to make farmers’ work easier. Its vision-guided feeder, which costs about 20,000 euros each, can feed up to 500 cows a day. In 2019, it acquired the 110-year-old Swedish farming company Sveaverken, which has helped put the Chinese firm’s feed pushing robots to work.

“I never talk about technology to my customers. The farmer is more interested in whether my product can help improve the crop yield,” said Wu. “Every farmer is an economist.”

Because of the company’s vision in “making tech affordable”, margins are “modest” and the management is vigilant about operational costs.

At the moment, about 40% of the startup’s sales happen outside China across some 60 countries. Many Chinese companies expanding overseas are increasingly cagey about their origin, fearing hostility against anything labeled “Chinese”. Wu takes a more proactive approach.

“Even though I’ve lived in Europe for ten years, I can’t rip off my skin. I don’t think that’s important — whether it’s a Chinese, American or Swedish entrepreneur… As long as you build great products and bring benefits to my customers, there will be users.”

Data compliance is especially key to a company’s global expansion. FJDynamics provides the hardware and software while its local partners help deploy the “system” using the data. Microsoft Azure is its main cloud partner outside China to allow “elastic deployment while meeting data privacy requirements such as GDPR.”

“Our culture is that we don’t want the data,” Wu said.

Unlike smartphones or drones that require sophisticated processors, FJDynamics’ products use relatively simple chips that could be found in China, so the firm is likely immune from the recent supply chain disruptions, the founder reckoned.

While Wu may not be working on the most advanced technology anymore, he looks for ways to impart his knowledge. When he’s not developing the next farming robot, he lectures at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen.

“I live a simple life that focuses on two things — product [FJDynamics] and education,” the founder said. “I’ve seen a lot and realized that money can’t change you or make you happier. So you need a simple goal, and achieving the simple goal makes your life happier.”

Robots and AI assist in designing and building Swiss university’s ‘hanging gardens’

Architecture and construction have always been, rather quietly, at the bleeding edge of tech and materials trends. It’s no surprise, then, especially at a renowned technical university like ETH Zurich, to find a project utilizing AI and robotics in a new approach to these arts. The automated design and construction they are experimenting with show how homes and offices might be built a decade from now.

The project is a sort of huge sculptural planter, “hanging gardens” inspired by the legendary structures in the ancient city of Babylon. (Incidentally, it was my ancestor, Robert Koldewey, who excavated/looted the famous Ishtar Gate to the place.)

Begun in 2019, Semiramis (named after the queen of Babylon back then) is a collaboration between human and AI designers. The general idea of course came from the creative minds of its creators, architecture professors Fabio Gramazio and Matthias Kohler. But the design was achieved by putting the basic requirements, such as size, the necessity of watering and the style of construction, through a set of computer models and machine learning algorithms.

During the design process, for example, the team might tweak the position of one of the large “pods” that make up the 70-foot structure, or change the layout of the panels that make up its surface. The software they created would then immediately adjust the geometry of the overall structure and the other panels to accommodate these changes, making sure it would still safely bear its own weight, and so on.

Computer rendering of what the final Semiramis hanging garden structure will look like.

Computer rendering of what the final Semiramis hanging garden structure will look like. Image Credits: Gramazio Kohler Research

There are many automated processes in architecture, of course, but this project pushes the boundaries out in the level of final control seemingly given to them. The point, after all, is to make it a genuine collaboration, not just a sort of architectural spell-check that makes sure the whole thing won’t collapse.

“The computer model lets us reverse the conventional design process and explore the full design scope for a project. This leads to new, often surprising geometries,” Kohler said in an ETHZ news post.

Having arrived at a final design, the construction is being accomplished by another human-automation team: a set of four robotic arms operating with one mind to hold multiple heavy pieces (each pod has dozens) in place while humans apply the resin used to keep them together. It’s a step above the technique we saw used a few years ago by the same team when they used robots as automated assistants.

Semiramis is being constructed in the workshop then shipped piece by piece to its eventual home at Tech Cluster Zug. It should be fully assembled and ready to accept soil and seeds this coming spring, so stop by if you’re in the area.

Business, school

Before we get started, two quick notes. We’re launching Actuator as a newsletter in a few short weeks! Make sure you’re in on the ground floor by signing up (for free!) over here. Also, the powers that be helpfully noted that I’ve not taken any days off this year, so I’ll be doing that next week. That means, among other things, attempting to sleep in until 7AM, a couple of museum visits and no newsletter on Thanksgiving. See you in December!

Last week, Carnegie Mellon announced that it had appointed Matthew Johnson-Roberson the sixth director of its Robotics Institute. We’ve spoken to Johnson-Roberson a number of times in the last few years, primarily in his capacity as Refraction AI’s co-founder and CTO. When I sat down with him again last week to discuss his new role, he called me from the University of Michigan’s Ford-funded robotics wing, where he served as co-director.

It’s a smart hire for a number of reasons — not the least of which is the CMU grad’s experience in both founding a startup and working as part of a corporate-university alliance. We’ve devoted a lot of words to Pittsburgh and CMU on this site over the past few years, and the consensus is that the former has been doing a better job incubating startups, but things could always improve.

Matthew Johnson-roberson

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin

Pittsburgh is quite possibly the strongest example of how a vibrant startup scene can revitalize a region suffering from economic depression. There are, of course, broader economic issues around potentially leaving residents behind through gentrification, but on the whole, Pittsburgh has largely been regarded as a success story, bouncing back from the rust belt region’s economic devastation.

It’s clearly something U of M is focused on for the Ann Arbor/Detroit regions. And Ford’s model will likely prove an increasingly popular one, as corporations look to research facilities for bleeding-edge technologies, while universities look for funding beyond the traditional endowment model (something which, granted, has worked for a university named for two of America’s most powerful industrialists).

As Johnson-Roberson tells TechCrunch:

So many of the technologies that were developed in the 90s and 00s are now reaching a level of maturity where they are getting rolled out in commercial products and making a big difference to the future of a lot of industries. I think it’s a natural extension of that. You begin to see relationships between universities and companies. Even if you look at Pittsburgh as a city, the transformation that it’s undergone from heavy industry focused around natural resources and steel, that transformation is only going to accelerate.

Part of my goal is to continue relations and build new ones. Beyond just industries, thinking about government and policy and all the other things that are now going to become more relevant for robotics — making sure we make those relationships and build on the strengths of the technical work that already goes on at the institute. That is something I’m particularly excited about.

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

Part of me is hoping the robotics news slows down a bit next week, if only for my nagging FONB (fear of not blogging) while I’m out. It’s not healthy, I know. But there are worse addictions (maybe?). I get the sense things will slow down a bit for American Thanksgiving week, if only because it seems like everyone is rushing to get their news out this week. There’s a LOT to crawl through here.

Image Credits: Aeris

Let’s start with a pair of acquisitions. As we noted in this column last week, iRobot has been getting aggressive about smart home. That’s largely meant things like Amazon Alexa integration up to now, but today’s news marks an interesting new angle. The Roomba maker purchased a Swiss company that makes air purifiers — a move it believes can improve its footprint in users’ homes.

CEO Colin Angle says in a release:

Today’s acquisition of Aeris is an important step in iRobot’s strategy to expand our total addressable market and diversify our product portfolio in ways that will provide consumers with new ways to keep their homes cleaner and healthier. We are enthusiastic about the growth potential for Aeris’ products, especially as the pandemic has raised greater consumer awareness of the value of maintaining a cleaner, healthier home. We are also excited about the potential to leverage our Genius Home Intelligence platform and existing ecosystem of home robots to bring the iRobot experience to air purification.

As we noted last week, most of iRobot’s biggest non-Roomba successes have come in the form of acquisitions of brands like Braava and Root. So hopefully this will open up some interesting avenues, in terms of having devices that can double as smart home beacons and improve home mapping.

Image Credits: Midnight Robotics

In the agtech space, Fieldin has acquired Midnight Robotics. It’s a deal that makes a lot of sense. Fieldin makes technology that allows farms to collect data for accelerating automation, while Midnight’s tech retrofits tractors and other farming machinery with lidar-based sensors.

Here’s Fieldin CEO Boaz Bachar:

Over the past eight years we’ve digitized hundreds of farms and over 10,000 tractors and pieces of farming equipment — more than anyone else in the high-value crop world — and amassed a trove of invaluable data that can offer insights into best practices in farm management. By acquiring Midnight Robotics, we’re helping farmers close the loop from insight to autonomous action, so they know exactly what they need to do and execute it autonomously, all through the same platform.

Monarch’s tractor, meanwhile, is more of an all-in-one solution. The company just announced a $61 million Series B. Like Fieldin, the company cites pandemic-related job shortages as a driving force in interest around its technology.

Image Credits: Nommi

From fields to the dinner table, Nommi just announced a distribution deal with C3 (Creating Culinary Communities) that is set to bring up to 1,000 of its robotic food prep kiosks to locations across the country. The deal also brings Iron Chef’s Masaharu Morimoto’s Sa’Moto brand to the machines, which can operate 24/7, unlike even the ironest of human chefs.

The robot is partially made of plastic, but teams up with Zume to reduce plastics. Excellent work, Judas. Photo: ABB

As hot as robotics are becoming in food, however, there’s probably an even brighter future in sustainable packaging — because, let’s face it, whatever direction we’re currently headed in isn’t great. In one of the wilder pivots in recent memory, Zume moved from pizza robots to bio-degradable packaging. The company is, however, returning to robotics (in a sense) courtesy of a new deal with industrial giant ABB to produce its food packaging.

And one final Tiger Global investment before I leave you (it wouldn’t be a robotics roundup without it). The firm just led a $25 million Series A for SVT Robotics. The Virginia-based company is working to develop a “plug-and-play” solution for industrial robotic deployment. Here’s co-founder and CEO A.K. Schultz:

The demand for industrial automation is even higher, but industry growth has been limited by capacity to execute. Integrations are typically all custom coded, meaning long development cycles. It’s expensive, and companies wait as much as a year or more for new automation to go live. Solving that problem with the SOFTBOT Platform empowers the market to grow at its full potential.

That’s it for me this week. Happy Turkey Day to those who celebrate. And don’t forget to sign up for Actuator here.

Hardware design platform nTopology raises $65M

Software for hardware design is all the rage in the VC funding world these days. Following recent rounds from Flux and Bild, nTopology just announced a sizable series D of $65 million. The funding round led by Tiger Global (who else) brings the New York-based firm’s total funding to $135 million. Existing investors Root Ventures, Canaan Partners, Haystack and Insight Partners also participated in the round.

The company effectively offers CAD software, designed to be used by engineers in a wide range of fields, including industrial design, aerospace, automotive and medical. The company promises a more elegant solution than more traditional systems, specifically focused on the world of 3D printing/additive manufacturing.

Image Credits: nTopology

“Earlier in my career, I found that most of the engineering software, like CAD, was a bottleneck in driving innovative design,” co-founder and CEO Bradley Rothenberg said in a release tied to the news. “Our company was built specifically to solve engineers’ problems, allowing them to fully utilize the power of additive manufacturing processes and fill the gaps left by these old legacy design tools.”

The company, which recently released v3.0 of its titular software offering, currently has around 300 clients, including names like Ford, Lockheed Martin and Honeywell. It also recently partnered with 3D printing giant Stratasys to create FDM Assembly Fixture Generator, a software platform designed for additive manufacturing workflows.

NTopology says the funding will go toward expanding its international reach, as well as developing additional features for its software.

iRobot buys air purifier maker Aeris

A week ago, we were discussing iRobot’s smart home ambitions as they pertain to the company’s work with Amazon. The company has been highlighted these plans bit by bit over the past couple of years, in the hopes of unlocking Roomba’s potential as a kind of smart home missing link.

Today the company takes a bit of a surprising next step, with the acquisition of Aeris Cleantec AG, a Swiss company best known for its HEPA air purifiers. Certainly the acquisition comports with the company’s core focus of cleaning the home, nearly 20 years after the introduction of its first robotic vacuum.

“Today’s acquisition of Aeris is an important step in iRobot’s strategy to expand our total addressable market and diversify our product portfolio in ways that will provide consumers with new ways to keep their homes cleaner and healthier,” CEO Colin Angle said in a release. “We are enthusiastic about the growth potential for Aeris’ products, especially as the pandemic has raised greater consumer awareness of the value of maintaining a cleaner, healthier home. We are also excited about the potential to leverage our Genius Home Intelligence platform and existing ecosystem of home robots to bring the iRobot experience to air purification.”

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It’s worth noting, as we did last week, that most of iRobot’s successful non-Roomba lines have derived from acquisitions, including Braava and Root, which were purchased by the company in 2012 and 2019, respectively.

Air purification is undoubtedly a topic that’s been at top of mind over the past two years, courtesy of the pandemic. Though, even prior to this, the category was booming, with the advent of things like connected smart home filters. Aeris’ flagship products the Lite and 3-in-1 Pro both offer a connected smartphone app for monitoring device health, as well as controlling multiple connected machines.

That last bit likely provides a glimpse into iRobot’s bigger plans. Without its own smart speaker, the company is almost certainly looking for some manner of smart home device that can serve as a connected beacon. That’s something that could potentially — albeit expensively — be served by air purifiers. Perhaps down the road we might also see Aeris’ purification technology built into Roomba docking stations.

The deal has already closed, according to iRobot, with the company paying $72 million in cash for Aeris. “In addition to this initial cash consideration,” the company notes, “the deal has a provision to pay a modest performance-based earn-out should Aeris achieve certain targets next year.”

Baidu’s robotaxi service aims to be in 100 cities by 2030

Baidu keeps ramping up its autonomous driving ambitions. The Chinese tech company made its name in search engines and still relies greatly on search ads for revenues. But it’s hoping that its heavy bet on autonomous driving will pay off down the road.

Apollo Go, Baidu’s robotaxi service, aims to be in 65 cities by 2025 and 100 cities by 2030, the firm’s co-founder and CEO Robin Li said on an analyst call Wednesday.

That’s a big batch of licenses that Baidu needs to obtain from local regulators. And eventually, the business’s sustainability comes down to how many of these permits grant commercial operations to Apollo Go, and how many rides the service could actually garner.

For now, Li estimated that Baidu is “probably the largest robotaxi service provider in the world by number of rides.” In the third quarter alone, Baidu offered 115,000 rides, and Li expected the number for Q4 to be “much larger than the reported number you can hear anywhere else in the world.”

In terms of improving its driving tech, Baidu has so far racked up over 16 million kilometers (10 million miles) of L4, self-driven distance. That’s up from 6.2 million miles reporterd in its first-quarter results.

These enormous figures, however, have limited substance unless we know how many of these rides actually happen on busy city roads rather than designated routes in enclosed areas.

Like most autonomous vehicle companies in China, Baidu is carving out a commercial robotaxi operation while supplying its advanced driving assistance tech to automakers and OEMs.

Baidu has been providing driving solutions to auto companies via its open-sourced Apollo platform since 2017. While the platform has accumulated hundreds of enterprise users, Baidu has fostered closer ties with certain partners. For example, it set up a joint venture with China’s Geely to form electric vehicle maker Jidu Auto, into which the partners would plow 50 billion yuan ($7.7 billion).

Gift Guide: 20+ STEM toy gift ideas for aspiring young builders

Welcome to TechCrunch’s 2021 Holiday Gift Guide! Need help with gift ideas? We’ve got lots of them. We’re just starting to roll out this year’s gift guides, so check back from now until the end of December for more! 

For this year’s STEM toy gift guide we’ve split out our recommendations by age for easier navigation. The 20+ gift ideas (below) run the gamut from train sets controlled by colorful blocks, to robots that can draw, all the way up to a cute DIY handheld gaming console that’s really an experimental platform for teens to build on.

Gifts we’ve selected hit a range of price points — starting at $15 and topping out at just under $550 (for all the educational LEGO your kid could ever need!), with a spectrum of price-points in between.

The learn-to-code category as a whole continues to mature, showing a strengthening (and welcome) focus on art and design, not just pure engineering. At the same time, it’s clear that sustaining a business selling educational gizmos/games is challenging, with a number of players winking out of existence (or taking an exit) since we last checked in. Product novelty also feels like it’s diminishing, even as maker hardware itself is flourishing (thanks to the likes of the Raspberry Pi). But, in general, the category’s experimental ‘Cambrian explosion’ moment seems to have passed — and the programmable robots have (mostly) taken over.

Consolidation remains a big theme in the space. As do pivots (see: Kano’s new jam, for example). After all, kids are fickle and even the fanciest toy can soon be discarded for a newer, shinier thing. Plus, it feels like some of the earlier hype (and loud claims) — around gizmos that ‘teach coding’ — has faded to a more practical/realistic and less flashy projection of potential educational value.

One extra challenge for STEM toy makers is the (now) high concern over kids’ screen time. Hence lots of products feature marketing that loudly touts ‘screen-free’ alternatives to teaching coding (such as by using physical blocks/cards/buttons etc). Meanwhile some others that do require a screen to work are trying to distinguish what they’re offering as ‘good screen’ time vs the addictive ‘digital sugar’ of non-learning-focused games and/or social media… whether parents buy that remains to be seen.

For surviving STEM players, increasing amounts of their time and energy are being directed away from the consumer space and toward supplying schools with learning-geared kit and resources directly — chasing a more reliable revenue stream, although selling to schools is no cake walk, either. Overall, being part of a larger maker marketplace or broader group of educational businesses seems to be where many surviving STEM startups are headed.

This article contains links to affiliate partners where available. When you buy through these links, TechCrunch may earn an affiliate commission.

Tiny techies: 2-4+

Botzees Toddler – Coding Train Set

botzees toddler coding train set

Image credits: Pai Technology

This colorful Coding Train play-set is touted as teaching tots early coding concepts, puzzle-solving and critical thinking by letting them add disc-shaped action bricks to their train track designs. Four different colored action bricks contain sensors that interact with the battery-powered car — causing it to brake, switch on its lights or generating sound effects. Screen-free play (but there’s an optional 3D building app for designing track circuits).

Age: 2+
Price: $90 from Amazon
Made by: Pai Technology


Sphero indi at Home Learning

New from Sphero for 2021 is indi, a robotic car designed to teach kids coding logic through play. Youngsters aged 4 and up can start learning screen-free, using colored cards from the kit to create tracks for the robot car to traverse while also solving puzzles.

indi edtech programmable robot by Sphero shown on colored coding cards

Image credits: Sphero

But that’s not all: a companion app, Sphero Edu Jr, means kids can customize indi’s behavior — via a drag and drop block-based interface —  to reprogram the car’s reactions to the tiles, build their own mazes, or play games and simple songs.

Age: 4+
Price: $100 from Amazon
Made by: Sphero

KIBO 10 Home Edition

KinderLab Robotics' Kibo 10 programmable robot for teaching kids coding

Image credits: KinderLab Robotics

KinderLab is a veteran player in the screen-free STEAM learning space with its programmable robotic toy, Kibo. The learning device is designed for 4-7 year olds to spark creative, educational play — without the need for tablets or apps. Instead wooden blocks introduce coding concepts, while kids are encouraged to customize their bot using a variety of add-ons and sensors — and by incorporating their own artistic creations.

The multifaceted toy is intended to inspire aspiring engineers, designers, artists and writers, as well as coders. KinderLab says its approach draws on two decades of early child development research.

The Kibo 10 Home Edition pack (pictured above) contains the Kibo robot with a drawable face-plate, wheels and motors, and scannable cards for creating Kibo programs.

Age: 4-7
Price: $199 from Amazon
Made by: KinderLab

Coding Critters MagiCoders

Another screen-free play option is Coding Critters MagiCoders from Learning Resources. Each programmable play-set is designed around a cartoon character — either Blazer the Dragon or Skye the Unicorn — which kids control using a battery-operated ‘wand’ that contains directional buttons.

Coding Critters MagiCoders: Blazer the Dragon play set shown in use

Image credits: Learning Resources

A spell button on the wand lets youngsters dive into more involved ‘programming’, with the help of a (paper) ‘spell book’ that contains instructions for triggering a variety of modes (like dance party and patrol guard).

Sensors on the rolling critters allow for further fun interactions.

Age: 4-8
Price: $55 from Amazon
Made by: Learning Resources


Itty-bitty builders: 5-7+


Ultimate Botley 2.0 The Coding Robot Bundle

Learning Resources' Ultimate Botley 2.0 Coding Robot Bundle

Image credits: Learning Resources


Another long time STEM learning toy is Botley the Coding Robot, also from Learning Resources. This Ultimate Coding Robot Bundle comes with last year’s updated robot (Botley 2.0) — which expanded the programmable interactions, added color-changing eyes and night vision for line-sensing in the dark — plus a variety of accessories, including a construction kit and costumes and wraps so little builders can change the look and feel of their bot. Screen-free play.

Age: 5+
Price: $94 from LearningResources
Made by: LearningResources

CodeSpark Academy  

LA-based startup CodeSpark has been making mobile and web games to teach kids coding for years — now as part of the Homer early learning group after being acquired by its parent company, New York-based Begin, earlier this year.

If your youngster already has access to a tablet, CodeSpark‘s pitch for its learning games is “screen time you can feel good about” — saying they cover basic concepts of computing coding (such as sequencing, loops, conditional statements, events, boolean logic & sorting etc) — just cunningly disguised as cartoonish characters and fun-looking puzzles and challenges. So kids won’t even realize they’re learning…

Illustration of how CodeSpark Academy teaches kids coding using games designed for learning

Image Credits: CodeSpark Academy

Since access to the software requires a subscription there are no ads or in-app purchases to worry about. CodeSpark does also offer a seven day free trial to get a taster of its wares. And there’s a dedicated gifting option on its website.

Age: 5-9
Price: $90 (for 12 months access) from CodeSpark
Made by: CodeSpark


Osmo Explorer Starter Kit

Indian edtech giant Byju-owned Osmo has been making educational games for tablets for almost a decade. Its big twist is to combine physical (offline) play (pens, blocks, cards etc) with digital on-screen content and interactions.

It does this via a dedicated tablet stand that adds a reflector to the iPad’s front-facing camera so that it gets a view of the physical play area directly below the screen. This means the app is able to mirror/act on what the kids are doing in the physical space. (And the bounded view means the camera only captures tiny hands, not your kids’ faces, so that’s a plus for privacy.) Osmo calls this blend of physical-digital play “embodied learning”.

Osmo Explorer Kit STEAM learning device for tablets shown with coding blocks in play

Image Credits: Osmo

The Osmo Explorer Starter Kit is described as its “most complete STEAM learning kit yet” — with a range of interactive games and art supplies in the bundle (Note: A tablet is not included so you’ll need your own iPad or equivalent). The kit includes a set of coding focused games which let kids manipulate on-screen characters to progress by combining (physical) coding blocks into a set of instructions and tapping the screen to execute their (proto)program.

Age: 5-10
Price: $158 from Osmo
Made by: Tangible Play Inc


Robo Sense 

European startup Robo Wunderkind has built a STEM learning business, one modular robotic block at a time. Kids get to learn about circuits and engineering concepts by plugging a variety of its smart blocks together — to build their own robots and make them move or otherwise animate them. Creations can be further extended by adding (actual) Lego bits and bobs.

Robo Wunderkind's learn-to-code STEM toy, Robo Sense

Image Credits: Robo Wunderkind

As well as pure physical play, Robo Wunderkind has a digital aide in the form of a companion app that expands the learning into on-screen coding. Here it offers tiered complexity — with three different levels from coding basics, where kids may just be manipulating colorful icons, to doing drag-and-drop block-based coding (based on Scratch) — which introduces more complex concepts like variables, functions, operators, and input/output handling. Python and Arduino APIs are also supported for more advanced programmers. 

The Robo Sense kit offers a taster of Robo Wunderkind’s approach, with a handful of sensing blocks to play with plus over 30 projects and tutorials to access online or in-app.

Age: 5-12
Price: $99 from Robo Wunderkind
Made by: Robo Wunderkind




Doodling devs: 8-12+

Artie Max

Artie Max is the latest programmable robot from Educational Insights. Much like its predecessor, Artie 3000, the STEM toy combines programming and art in a very literal sense: The robot is designed to hold colored marker pens and kids write code that the bot ‘draws’ by moving around on a piece of paper.

Educational Insights' Artie Max coding robot shown with the box, colored marker pens and an instruction booklet

Image Credits: Educational Insights

Artie Max’s main upgrade vs Artie 3000 is that it can hold a bunch of marker pens, not just a single marker — allowing for multicolored designs to be coded. Programming Artie’s movements is done via a drag and drop interface in the companion app or web interface. Other coding languages are supported, along with a visual interface where kids can draw a design on screen that they want the bot to ink out on paper.

Age: 8+
Price: $100 from Amazon
Made by: Educational Insights


littleBits At-Home Learning Starter Kit

Sphero-owned littleBits’ approach to sparking interest in hardware hacking involves easy to connect modular electronics. It spices things up with some colorful housings and incorporates a little product design into the mix, through kit-based projects.

littleBits Starter kit shown in action with a maker snapping components together

Image Credits: Sphero

This (screen-free) STEAM littleBits Starter Kit (above) consists of a box of bits and pieces — including a handful of the brand’s customary snap-together components, plus craft supplies and (paper-based) project instructions. The idea is to bundle all the key bits kids need to work through five electronics projects and be budding inventors by brainstorming ideas, either on their own or guided by a parent.

Age: 8+
Price: $65 from littleBits
Made by: Sphero

Magic of LED

Mand Labs' 'Magic of LED' electronics kit for kids, shown open to display all the components

Image credits: Mand Labs

Inspire your little one with actual, real-world electronics with this Mand Labs STEM stocking stuffer. The Magic of LED kit offers an easy intro to hands-on electronics (no soldering required). The box of 30+ components — including LEDs, a buzzer, transistors and capacitors — supports five projects, including a touch-activated switch and an automatic night lamp. An Internet-connected computer is needed to access digital instructions.

Age: 8+
Price: $30 from Mand Labs
Made by: Mand Labs

Code Lab

Shortcut to programming electronics with Code Lab: A board that packs in 60 different components (including LEDs, a speaker, an LCD thermometer, sound-sensitive lights, a random tone generator and more) and hooks up to a computer (by USB) for coding the hardware via a C++ interface.

Code Lab learn to code electronics board shown in use by a boy using a computer watched by his mother

Image Credits: Let’s Start Coding

A variety of learning content is bundled with Code Lab, including walkthrough videos; 100 sequenced project pages (which it says “cover the fundamentals of all coding languages”); and 2,200+ lines of example code that can be modified or tinkered.

Code ‘challenges’ and ‘bug hunts’ further encourage kids to interact and engage with the code to help strengthen learning.

Age: Varies, but they’ll need to be able to follow complex instructions and type well.
Price: $200 from Code Lab
Made by: Lets Start Coding


Grace Hopper Queen of Computer Code 

You can’t beat a book for screen-free learning. Get your little developer-in-training inspired by the story of early computer pioneer Grace Hopper (not to mention why the word ‘bug’ owes a lot to an ill-fated moth), engagingly told by Laurie Wallmark — with eye-catching illustrations by Katy Wu.


A page from the book 'Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code' by Laurie Wallmark, Illustrated by Katy Wu

Image Credits: AdaFruit

Age: 8+
Price: $15.95 from, AdaFruit and others


imagiCharm Smarter Kit

Women-in-tech focused Swedish startup, imagiLabs, has come up with this cute IoT device designed to get girls interested in computing. The imagiCharm is an app-controlled wearable which contains an array of programmable colored lights to inspire coding through customization.

imagiLabs' imagiCharm learn-to-code wearable shown in close up held by a girl

Image Credits: imagiLabs

Your up-and-coming developer will need access to a mobile device in to connect to their imagiCharm so they can program and upload their custom designs — learning Python as they come up with their own twist on classic emoji to adorn the battery-powered wearable.

The imagiCharm Smarter Kit bundles six lessons (roughly 12 hours) of learning content with the hardware for sustained learning opportunities right out of the box.

Age: 8-14+
Price: $100 from imagiLabs
Made by: imagiLabs


LEGO Education At Home STEAM Learning Bundle

LEGO has been extending its learning legacy into electronics for years. This massive LEGO Education STEAM Learning Bundle brings together three different kits from its education-focused robotics platform line (for grades 5-8) — the Spike Prime Core Set, Spike Prime Expansion Set and the (sports science-focused) BricQ Motion Prime Set — to really dial up the creative, learning potential.

Lego Education At Home STEAM Learning Bundle

Image Credits: Lego Education

As well as bundling up (lots of)  bricks and components for kids to combine in all sorts of ways, building their own robots and other mechanical and/or sensing creations (as well as offered guided buids), there’s a Scratch-based drag-and-drop coding interface to bring their creations to life. LEGO Education also provides lesson plans for more extended learning.

Age: 10+
Price: $550 from LEGO
Made by: LEGO Education


pi-top [4] Robotics Superset

UK-based STEM startup pi-top has had a number of challenges in recent years. Its latest incarnation sees it joining the programmable robotic fray with this Robotics Superset.

All the pieces in pi-top's robotics kit

Image Credit: pi-top

While the pi-top [4] processor that powers the kit is basically an encased Raspberry Pi, the addition of a battery and hard case (plus a bunch of ports) means the mini desktop computer can now go roving and (with the right add-ons) sense stuff in its environment. Components bundled in the Robotics Superset include motors, servos, an HD camera and an ultrasonic sensor.

Kids can get help to program the Pi-powered rover by accessing resources provided through pi-top’s learning platform, called Further, including projects, challenges and courses.

Age: 11+
Price: $399 from Pi-top
Made by: pi-top

NextMaker Box

Give a STEAM gift that keeps on inspiring with MakeBlock’s NextMaker Box: A monthly subscription box of coding and making projects.

Each month kids get a box of bits to build programmable things — robots, IoT devices, sensing hardware etc — and learn at their own pace. An online learning system provides instructions, support and access to a block-based coding interface for programming the build-it-yourself gizmos. Bundled craft supplies add art and design into the mix.

Makeblock's Nextmaker Box subscription STEM kits, illustrated by a boy holding a piece of programmable electronics in front of a laptop showing his block-based code

Image Credits: Makeblock

Projects for kids to build include a voice-operated smart trash bin; a motion-sensing tumbler toy; a smart wearable and more.

Age: 6-12
Price: $40 from MakeBlock
Made by: MakeBlock


Techie teens: 12+

mBot Mega Advanced Robot and Electornics Kit for Arduino C, Scratch

Makeblock’s programmable remote-controlled all terrain robot rover, mBot Mega, packs a MegaPi control board based on the open source Arduino electronics platform. So if your teen is keen on learning programming hardware in Arduino IDE or Scratch this could be just the kit to whet their appetite.

All the pieces of Makeblock's mBot Mega programmable robotics kit

Image Credits: Makeblock

Makeblock promises a detailed construction guide and 20+ online projects to keep curious minds busy. Access to a computer is required for coding the bot. The bot’s hardware can be further extended by adding a Raspberry Pi (not included).
Age: 12+
Price: $130 from MakeBlock
Made by: MakeBlock


Raspberry Pi Zero 2 W

For a budget-friendly but endlessly explorable challenge, why not throw your teen in at the deep end by getting them a Raspberry Pi? The low cost microprocessor preempted the current wave of STEM devices — offering a ‘no frills’ approach to getting kids learning coding that combines cheap but powerful hardware and minimal hand-holding. Pi has gone on to become a maker powerhouse.

The Raspberry Pi Zero 2 W

Image Credits: Raspberry Pi Foundation

New for 2021 — and costing just $15 — the tiny Pi Zero 2 W (above) nonetheless packs a punch, with a quad-core 64-bit ARM Cortex-A53 engine clocking in at 1GHz and with 512MB of SDRAM there’s power enough for some serious smart home programming projects. Wireless LAN is also included. Your teen will need access to a computer to program the hardware.

The Pi Foundation has a curated feed of community-built Pi Zero projects to get your kid inspired.

Age: 12+ to infinity
Price: $15 from Raspberry Pi 
Made by: Raspberry Pi Foundation



AdaBox is a quarterly (i.e. once every three months) subscription box of DIY electronics projects, curated by AdaFruit. You won’t know what electronics bits and bots you’re getting in advance — but, for more advanced teens with access to a computer this blackbox of hack together hardware could be just the inspiration they need to get building.

AdaFruit's subscription maker box, AdaBox, shown on a table with a variety of components

Image Credits: AdaFruit

AdaFruit says the subscription service is “designed for makers of all levels, with a special focus on folks just starting out”. Tutorials and videos are provided via the Learning System on its website. Access to an Internet-connected device is required for programming the hardware.

Projects in past boxes include building your own Matrix Portal Flow Visualizer.

(Note: There is a dedicated ‘Give’ option for gifting the AdaBox during checkout. However with the holiday season fast approaching, AdaFruit says the first box of any new orders won’t now ship til Spring — so ordering this as a holiday gift will require a little patience in the recipient.)

Price: $60 per box
Sold by: AdaFruit



Why not buy your game-developer-in-training this tiny, Raspberry Pi Pico-powered handheld gaming system from UK-based Pimoroni — which is not just a teeny games console but an experimental gaming platform.

Pimoroni's Picosystem miniature handheld gaming console and experimental games platform

Image Credits: Pimoroni

Games can be coded for the PicoSystem using a variety of languages, including C++/MicroPython (Per Pimoroni: “Our official PicoSystem API is designed to be lightweight, easy to use and to not get in the way while you’re developing games”) — see their tutorial to get started.

Out of the box, the tiny handheld ships flashed with Super Square Bros. by Scorpion Games.

Price: $80 from AdaFruit
Made by: Pimoroni


Piper Make Starter + Robotics Expedition Kit

Piper is another long time player in the STEAM toy space — starting out back in 2014 offering a DIY Minecraft computer to teach kids coding. It’s still selling its classic, wooden-cased Raspberry Pi-powered computer kits, but has expanded to sell a range of maker kits.

Including — new for 2021 (and slated to ship this month) — the Robotics Expedition Kit which comes bundled with the requisite Pi Pico (and other starter electronics essentials). Kids get to build a couple of kinetic robots (a walker and a rover) and then get help to write code to get them moving them via Piper’s drag-and-drop coding platform Make. So they’ll need access to a computer or mobile device.

Piper's Robotics Expedition kit shown with kids working on how to program the bots

Image Credits: Piper

Piper’s coding platform includes a virtual representation of the microcontroller and automatic translation of the block-based programming language to text-based CircuitPython to support youngsters to learn the basics of hardware coding.

A variety of other projects are also available via the Piper Make portal — where it says it uses storytelling-based lessons to motivate young learners. Its Make programming software is also available via a mobile app.

Price: $148 from Piper
Made by: Piper

Fieldin buys fellow agtech firm Midnight Robotics

It was going to be a big couple of years for agricultural robotics well before COVID-19 was on our collective radar. Population growth and environmental concerns have been big drivers for those working to figure out how to feed people in the future. The pandemic, meanwhile, has only accelerated concerns, as many farmers have struggled to staff field-hand positions.

Fieldin — which made its first appearance on these pages as a Tel Aviv pitch-off winner back in 2016 — today announced plans to acquire Midnight Robotics. It’s certainly a good match on its face. California-based (by way of Israel and Australia) Fieldin works to help farmers accelerate data collection and automation. Midnight, meanwhile, retrofits tractors and other farming equipment with lidar-based sensing technologies.

Fieldin says its technology takes around a day to get up and running. As with many of these services, the company sends a technician to the farm to help on-board farmers. On the face of it, at least, it’s an easier life than many of the existing technologies that require famers to purchase brand new technology — something that’s cost-prohibitive for those on a tight budget.

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The acquisition will integrate Midnight’s technology into Fieldin’s existing solution.

“Over the past eight years we’ve digitized hundreds of farms and over 10,000 tractors and pieces of farming equipment — more than anyone else in the high-value crop world — and amassed a trove of invaluable data that can offer insights into best practices in farm management,” Fieldin co-founder and CEO Boaz Bachar said in a release. “By acquiring Midnight Robotics, we’re helping farmers close the loop from insight to autonomous action, so they know exactly what they need to do and execute it autonomously, all through the same platform.”

Midnight co-founders Yonatan Horovitz and Edo Reshef will join Fieldin as chief autonomy office and chief technology officer, respectively. They will also both be listed as Fieldin co-founders, per the deal.

Machina Labs emerges from stealth with $16M raised for on-demand manufacturing robotics

Machina Labs today announced a $14 million Series A for its robotics and AI-based manufacturing. The round, led by Endeavors and featuring Congruent Ventures and Embark Ventures, brings the Los Angeles firm’s total funding to $16.3 million to date.

The news also finds the company effectively coming out of stealth, following pilots with NASA and the United States Air Force. Government contracts (DoD specifically) have long played an important part of the early stages of robotics platforms, and Machina Labs doesn’t appear unique in that respect.

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It is, however, beginning to accept commercial partners, as it looks toward more growth with this new funding. The timing is certainly right, with U.S.-based manufacturing only further hamstrung amid a pandemic that has ground much of the global supply chain to a screeching halt.

Image Credits: Machina Labs

Machina’s initial play is focused, in part, on sheet metal manipulation, which it has used to design tank parts, while exploring the potential for in-space manufacturing for NASA — though, for obvious reasons, that bit is a ways off. Meantime, the company is currently offering on-demand manufacturing-as-a-service at the factory in its native Los Angeles.

“Manufacturing must be reinvented to keep up with the pace of change in this highly competitive market,” co-founder and CEO Edward Mehr said in a statement. “We’re excited to finally reveal Machina Labs’ manufacturing platform, which combines the latest advances in robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) to democratize access to rapid manufacturing so that anyone with a great idea can manufacture parts quickly, efficiently and cost-effectively. These software-defined, robotic facilities are the factories of the future, and we’re thrilled to have our investors on board to help us get there.”

This fresh round of funding will go toward increasing the company’s headcount in LA and additional R&D for its platform.