Robotic toys you can control with your phone are not only great fun: they’re educational too. Whether you want to learn to code yourself, or want to inspire and help your kids to get started, a phone-connected robot is one of the best places to start.
It’s worth saying that you don’t have to do any coding at all to have a lot of fun with all the robots here, but you can if you want to make them do specific things.
The Cozmo by Anki is hands-down one of the smartest smart robots we’ve come across yet. Small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, Cozmo still packs an impressively big brain, and is capable of recognising people’s faces, playing games, and learning as it goes.
Cozmo comes with a set of three LED cubes which are used in a series of games testing reaction time or colour matching. You play against Cozmo, who learns how you play and adjusts his own skill appropriately. He also reacts as he goes – beat him badly and he’ll throw a little tantrum, screwing up the eyes on his LED screen.
The built-in camera can learn and recognise faces with an associated name – which he can say out loud when he sees you – and you can also program him to say other phrases. You can even remote control him while seeing through his camera on your phone and tablet screen. There’s also a host of coding mini-games built in to teach kids basic programming.
Above all though, Cozmo is packed with personality. He’s lively, vibrant, and fun, telling you what games he wants to play at any given time, reacting to you, expressing emotions, and more. It sounds silly, but you really will find yourself caring about Cozmo and what he wants, which is a huge accomplishment.
Sphero may be best known for its spherical robots (hence the name – and see one of those further down this list) – but its best creation yet ignores all that to instead develop on the company’s other great success, the Star Wars-inspired BB-8 droid. The result? A decidedly non-spherical, but very brilliant, R2-D2.
Controlled using a smartphone app, this diminutive droid boasts a host of animations drawn directly from the films, including authentic sound effects and LED flashes. You can control him directly from the app, set him to patrol, or even leave him to react autonomously as you watch one of the Star Wars films with R2 at your side. There’s also a little AR mini-game to enjoy.
Sure, he’s more remote-control toy than robot in the strict sense, but R2 is one of cinema’s most famous robots, and this is the most authentic R2 toy we’ve ever seen.
Oh, and if you prefer your Spheros spherical, you can still get the popular BB-8 droid, along with his new First Order counterpart BB-9E.
UBTECH Jimu Meebot kit
The Meebot is a robot aimed at kids. You can buy it from Apple stores for £109.95. It comes in kit form, which means you have to build it like LEGO. Except that instead of paper instructions you download the app which shows an animated 3D model of the build which you can turn and zoom in to – if only LEGO did this…
Once complete, which takes a couple of hours (quicker if your kids aren’t helping), you can connect to it via Bluetooth and start controlling it.
The pre-set moves are great: it can do the ‘crazy dance’ and even the ‘man flag’ where it balances on one arm.
The idea, of course, is that kids have a lot of fun building and playing with it, but then learn to program it to move themselves. They can do this using a graphical block interface, but can also see the code itself.
They can even dismantle the kit and build their own version of the robot, connecting the six servo motors in whatever combination they like.
littleBits Droid Inventor Kit
littleBits started out making kits of tiny colour-coded electronic components that you can connect together to build more complex circuits and gadgets. Then they had the brilliant idea of taking all that tech and putting it inside R2-D2.
The Droid Inventor Kit lets you assemble both R2’s casing (including customisable sticker decals) and his internal components, with an accompanying app to walk you through the various configurations step-by-step.
One setup lets you drive R2 around using your phone as a controller, while another gives him a microphone and speaker to record and play voice messages, and another lets his head rotate.
Those are just the base configurations though – you can expand on them by buying more components, either through another littleBits kit, or buying individual Bits directly from the company.
The Bits themselves all connect magnetically, making them easy to assemble and disassemble, and the app does a great job walking you through putting R2 together – and taking him apart – to make sure nothing breaks.
There are even guides on how to customise the body using household objects – like a flowerpot head dome or a juice carton body – so that keen inventors can truly make R2 entirely their own.
Another robot available from the Apple store (£119.95) is the Sphero SPRK+. This is an evolution of the original Sphero, and is designed to be both fun to play with and also – as with other robots here – to inspire kids to learn to code.
At its simplest, you can use the Sphero app to control where the ball rolls just a like a remote-controlled car.
But you can also program it to travel a certain route and you can hold it and use as a controller for other apps and games.
Read our full Sphero SPRK+ review.
If you don’t want to pay for the full Sphero experience of the SPRK+ or one of the Star Wars droids, you might want to consider the Sphero Mini.
As the name suggests, this is a smaller version of the company’s spherical robots – fortunately with a smaller price point to match.
As with other Sphero droids, you control it using your phone, and have a few options – you can use standard touchscreen joystick controls, a ‘slingshot’ mode in which you pull back and release to send the robot flying forwards, a gyroscopic mode where you tilt the phone to steer, and even a facial recognition mode where you can smile to move forwards and frown to reverse – that last one is a bit of fun, though it definitely doesn’t work as smoothly as the others.
The Mini is available in a few different colours, and you can also customise the colour of the internal LED, which glows through the translucent plastic shell. It charges by Micro-USB (cable included) and also comes with a set of mini plastic bowling pins and traffic cones to set up some little obstacle courses.
Beyond driving the Sphero around, there’s also a set of games that use the internal gyroscope – so you rotate the Sphero itself to move around objects on your phone screen within the game. It takes some getting used to the controls, but it’s fun once you get the hang of it – if little more than a novelty.
You don’t get the more complex programming features of the bigger Spheros sadly, but at just £50/$50 this is more of a toy than a complex gadget – it’s good fun, but don’t expect much more than that.
Lego Mindstorms EV3
No robot roundup would be complete without LEGO Mindstorms. The latest kit is the EV3 which lets you build 17 different robots which can drive, shoot, slither, walk, slam, and spin.
Coding is the name of the game here, and you can install the EV3 Programmer app on your tablet to make your robot do your bidding. If you don’t have a tablet, the software is also available for Windows and Macs.
The phone and tablet app can of course also be used as a remote control for your robot and, because it’s made from Lego Technic bricks, you can rebuild it into whatever you like, and add your own bricks and pieces.
A faster version of the Sphero (and BB-8) is the Ollie. This is pretty much designed exclusively for fun rather than education, and instead of an internal mechanism driving a sphere, Ollie has two wheels.
These can turn in opposite directions for some great spinning and trick action, but when working together they can propel the robot up to around 15mph, which is plenty fast enough.
It’s tough enough to be launched into the air off ramps, and comes with rubber tyres for outdoor use (the plastic wheels are slippery, which is great fun on smooth surfaces such as wooden floors).