This article was published on October 23, 2011

Tankbot: The perfect $25 smart robot stocking stuffer for geeks of all ages

Tankbot: The perfect $25 smart robot stocking stuffer for geeks of all ages
Chad Catacchio
Story by

Chad Catacchio

Chad Catacchio is a contributor writing on a variety of topics in tech. He has held management positions at a number of tech companies in th Chad Catacchio is a contributor writing on a variety of topics in tech. He has held management positions at a number of tech companies in the US and China. Check out his personal blog to connect with him or follow him on Twitter (if you dare).

There is very little in this world that is more pleasing than buying and playing with a toy that is enjoyable for the geek in all of us, regardless of age.

Such a toy is the Tankbot, a new smart robot by MyDeskPets that packs an amazing amount of tech into a very small package – and it only costs $25.

So what makes Tankbot so geek-taskic? It has “advanced optical navigation technology” that allows it to navigate around and through obstacles – and even mazes – with amazing quickness and accuracy for a $25 device. It also has a number of very cute sounds that it makes, including an “Awwww….” when you shut it off, like it’s sad it can’t play any more.

While you can control it with any iOS or Android device, it’s actually cooler when it navigates by itself, as in this video of our Tankbot navigating a maze of books (it did flip on its side a few times previous though):

Tankbot is about the size of a lime, and comes in three colors: orange, blue and green. As you can see from the picture below, the little robot features two tank treads (that operate on independent motors) as well as headlights, and a see through “windshield” that shows the circuitry underneath.

Overall, it’s relatively rugged for a $25 toy, with one notable exception: the flip-down USB charging stick at the back (more on that in a minute). Its all-plastic design means that it weighs practically nothing, and there is no dedicated charger (it charges via USB) so it can be a fun gadget to tote around to try in different environments.

We’ve been playing with – um, testing – the Tankbot for the last couple of weeks and except for four slight flaws, the little robot has proven to be hours of fun and often works exceptionally well. So, what are the flaws? Well, the first is that its optical technology doesn’t seem to do too well with black objects (i.e. it often runs into them) and our unscientific guess is that’s because its optical sensors cannot bounce light off of that color. The second flaw is that sometimes the Tankbot tries to cut a corner and ends up on its back, treads spinning in the air.

The third flaw is related to the remote control function when using an iOS or Android device. Tankbot comes with an IR dongle that plugs into a 3.5mm headphone jack, and you control the robot by two touch levers or a four-way trackpad on the free  iOS app or Android app (beware, however, that it doesn’t seem as if all Android phones have been tested).

Each colored Tankbot is controlled on a different frequency, so if you buy a couple of them, make sure to buy different colors so that you can race them. The downside to the remote control function is that the range of the IR is only a couple of feet, which honestly was a disappointment, but considering the entire kit is only $25, it’s hard to fault everything.

The final flaw is something we mentioned up above: the USB charging stick. Not only do you need to be extremely careful that when it’s plugged in to not break it off, but, depending on where your USB port is (and of course it has to be able to transfer power through the port), it can be inconvenient to place as the stick is short and in the center of the unit.

As far as the battery goes, Tankbot takes 45 minutes to fully charge which is supposed to give you 15 minutes of play time (which in itself is really plenty, but we found on our unit that it seemed to last longer than 15 minutes on a charge).

For you programmer types out there, MyDeskPets has supposedly open sourced the control software behind the Tankbot. However, when we found the open source page, there weren’t any files, so where to find the code is a bit of a mystery.

Overall, Tankbot is a great little robot – and a perfect holiday gift for kids of all ages. In the US, we know for sure that you can pick them up at Radio Shack (we bought ours there), and we’ve read Toys R US as well. But as the guy at Radio Shack said, “I can tell these will sell out fast” – so get yours before they’re gone.

Meanwhile, much larger robots are set to roam the malls of Abu Dhabi.

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