Nick Steele
hacks things and practices open sourcery. Engineer.

Building Robots with Multiplo

This was originally posted order essay to Grand St. on May 28, 2013

Tablets, phones, and PCs are being introduced to kids at a very young age whether at home or in school. A friend of mine’s toddler phone spy software mumbai even has “play time” several times a week in her kindergarten class which simply involves an hour of iPad use (don’t worry, they still have outdoor recess for those that I’ve now terrified). This is not a bad thing, tablets can be fantastic learning aids and a spy phone calls free great way to entertain your kids during a car trip and other mundane activities for children. You can browse wikipedia or reddit for hours and can come away with new knowledge on a given subject or just as easily as you can find pictures of cats for your folder titled ‘LOL’.

With this new prevalence of mobile and PC technology in the classroom, schools across the spectrum from the most

well-off to the deeply impoverished (thanks to the beautiful efforts of groups like the Edubuntu team and the OLPC Project), are able to provide kids with the ability to learn about the code and software that drives the tech they have been using for most of their lives. In fact, here in New York several high schools dedicated to learning computer science have begun to open their doors this year.

Programming is a very important skill given the boom in technology and general deficiency in computer scientists and engineers in the current job market, but it also teaches practical skills including logic, algebra, and critical thinking that are important for a young mind. For me, my interest in programming started in high school, but it was a while before I would ever consider myself an actual programmer. There were other kids programming when I was in highschool, but I didn’t have the interest or knowledge yet. But what put me on track towards my profession (Hacker and Dark Wizard fyi) today?

Building robots.

The first time I started building robots was around 2006 when Lego first released the Mindstorms NXT, a kit that included a plethora of building blocks, a USB connection for computer interfacing, a graphical programming language called NXT-G and the aptly named NXT Intelligent Brick. It was a great kit that fascinated me for years, I still have my original robot displayed proudly in my old school’s trophy case (ladies control yourselves) but, at least for me, the Mindstorms kit turned out to be a fantastic tool for learning about code, but not learning how to code or anything about electronics. I knew how the sensors worked, for instance the touch sensor was activated when it touched a wall or the light sensor activated and triggered code when certain light conditions were met, but I never saw the code nor sensors on their own (Mindstorms sensors and motors look very different than if you were to order their factory-made counterparts).

On top of that, my Intelligent Brick, which did give me a fantastic introduction to logical programming without ever having to write code, stifled me in that I could only use what came out of the box or Lego’s proprietary catalogue of Mindstorms additions. I built the four robots that came with the original manual, and then I built some more, but then I hit a wall. Unless I could shell out upwards of twenty bucks for a single sensor, I had hit the limit of what

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I could build.

When I first received the two kits we are now selling from Multiplo, a startup comprised mostly of teachers and robotics specialists, I was hesitant, but extremely giddy. The former stemming from my belief that this was just going to be a redux of the NXT Mindstorms kit I had so many years ago, but the latter came from the buzz and hype I had heard already from

the Kickstarter community that had rave reviews and fanfare over the Arduino board and software that Multiplo had put together for their product. Opening the box of mechanical parts, electrical components, sensors, and other controllers sent me back to when I was 16, a year after I received my NXT, and building my first computer: the terror of almost infinite possibility. I didn’t know where to begin and where I should, or even wanted, to end up.

The first time I felt that way, when I had first unboxed my computer’s power supply, an octopus of cord ends and mesh, the motherboard, a plate of vacant slots ready to fill with chips and controllers, and all the other pieces I would need to assemble my PC, I remember calling my dad, distraught and maybe just a bit hysterical, asking for advice. My dad told me to calm down and start building. Don’t bend, don’t force, don’t break, do what feels natural, and do what you know, because I did know. So that’s what I did. I took a deep breath and dove in. I picked up a handful of connectors that pinned together the erector set-esque plastic and metal, and began pinning them together. It wasn’t until two hours later after I had assembled and reassembled what would become the

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one of the bigger robots I made that I even looked at the real hardware and software that drove the Multiplo. The calm I had achieved through the sheer act of building was fortified by what I found.

The DuinoBot microcontroller is what the Intelligent Brick should have been and the open software, known as Minibloq and written by the Multiplo team, had what Lego’s software was missing at the time (and the default software still lacks). The DuinoBot v1.2 is a modified Arduino board that is not only see through, so you can see all the sweet components soldered into it, but still retains some of the same ports as the Duemilanove Arduino it was based on. The board has 4 types of ports that are immediately distinguishable either by picking up the block or reading the manual: There’s a mini-USB port to connect your computer as a means to program and power the block, there’s a port that connects to a battery pack so your block can have power when it’s programmed (or connected to motors, which require more voltage), two ports for connecting two 12V motors, and 6 ports for the many sensors included in with the Multiplo kits. These labeled ports are great for getting an initial handle of your Arduino board skillz and the Minibloq software that comes with it, in fact in the software there is a schematic for the board showing these ports.

What makes the software incredible if you decide to use it (because feel free to use the Arduino IDE with this) is that, like with the mindstorms, you can drag and drop blocks of logic into place to control the board. However, unlike the mindstorms software when it first came out (it still doesn’t really have this feature), minibloq allows you to drag and drop blocks of logic to control your robot, but you can also view the code that is being used to

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run it in a separate window. This is a great way to introduce new programmers or programmers unfamiliar with C, Arduino’s language of choice, to development and move off of minibloq onto (oh did I forget to mention?) the 16+ other pins available on the multiplo Duinobot for users’ own customized usage!

That’s right, the duinobot allows users to attach their own wiring, sensors, breadboards, even another DuinoBot (using MISO) with their open digital and analog pins. This is an amazing way to step up from the pre-built code provided with miniblog and understand how to use the duinobot board in new custom fashions. This board has almost unlimited potential and if you’re a builder, hacker, hobbyist, 10th grader, or anyone else interested in electrical engineering AND programming, I can’t give enough praise to the Multiplo team and the kits they put together.

I’m sharing with this post one of my first projects, built with the Multiplo Starter Kit. The first project is a neat little setup and codebase in the form of a minibloq project that allowed me to cool my cup of tea at the office for two minutes and then beep to tell me when it’s done. multiploTea A second project, still in the works, is a rubber band powered ping-pong ball launcher that is triggered using one of the servos included in the Building Kit. Both are very neat and very basic. If you decide to buy a kit, either through us or on your own, or already have one, ping me at, I’d love to share your work with the web if you have or haven’t already. Just like the Multiplo community, ours is a fascinating and active one that’s still growing. Join us!