Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Makeblock mBot Ranger Programmable Robot Review

The Makeblock mBot Ranger is a STEM educational robot that kids can assemble and program themselves. The Ranger is the older sibling of the mBot robot which is the basis for my younger son's Roby the Robot Dog project.

Disclosure: Makeblock sent us an mBot Ranger for review. Our opinions are our own.

What is the mBot Ranger?

The mBot Ranger is an educational robot with powder-coated metal parts and an Arduino compatible mainboard called the Me Auriga. The Ranger can be built into three different robots: The tank-like Land Raider with wheel tread, The balancing Nervous Bird and the speedy Dashing Raptor. And you can design your own robots too.

The mainboard has a ring of 12 RGB LED lights, a tone buzzer that can play musical notes, sound, light (x2) and temperature sensors and a gyro sensor to detect tilt. It also drives the two motors that control the wheels and connects to the included distance and line-followed sensors. The mainboard also has spare ports for connecting additional components. 

The mBot Ranger offers simple graphical programming on tablets, Scratch-based graphical programming on PC / Mac and C-based Arduino coding for advanced users.

The mBot ranger can be controlled and programmed via Bluetooth low energy.

We have previously reviewed the earlier mBot robot from the range and will soon be reviewing the updated mBot 1.1. The mBot Ranger is a step up from the regular mBot. 


As has always been our experience with mBot, the Ranger is beautifully and practically packaged. Components are separated with cardboard inners and smaller components are in bags. The box is made from sturdy cardboard and has a magnetic catch which makes it really easy to open and close the box. 

We still have the boxes from our original mBot robots and use them to store the robots and their components when not in use. This is a big deal for us. Other robot kits that don't come with a reusable storage box are hard to store and mean you end up buying a suitable storage box. Unfortunately the Ranger doesn't quite fit into the box when built in its Land Raider configuration, but at least the box can be used for storing all the additional parts and tools (not all parts are used in each robot.)

The included instruction manual has pictorial instructions for building the three robots that you can make from the Ranger kit. 

"Oh wow you can put a LEGO figure on it."
One of the first things my son noticed is that the enclosure for the mBot Ranger main board has LEGO compatible connectors. That's a big deal in this house. Any robot that gets built is going to end up carrying LEGO minifigures and being built on top of!

Another nice feature is that the tools you need are included in the box. This is really convenient and means you don't have to hunt for tools before getting started and that kids get their own tools. The screwdriver is good quality too and has a nice soft-grip handle which makes it easier for kids to work with. 

Building the mBot Ranger

"Can we make the one with tracks?" 
I didn't build the mBot Ranger, my 9 year old son did. He has previously built his mBot and helped me to build a Meccanoid so he does have some experience. 

I had to slow him down a little at the beginning to make sure he was comparing the screws to the 1-1 diagrams in the instruction booklet but apart from that he didn't need much help with the physical assembly other than me tightening everything up at the end to make sure it will stay together.

Unfortunately he did have trouble with the very first step which was connecting the motor wires.

"Hmm, I don't know which way round these connectors go."
The other components in the set connect with simple RJ25 connectors but the motor uses different connectors. We found it really hard to see which way around the connectors go (there are some tiny bumps that look like they go into matching slots but we didn't spot them at first) and the diagram seems to show them the wrong way around. The connector was really tricky to slot in too.

We did get it right first time, but we weren't at all certain that we had! I'd recommend putting these connectors in first before getting a child to assemble the robot (and it might be better if they came pre-connected.)

Apart from the confusion with the motor, the robot was easy for my son to assemble.

Remote Control with the Makeblock App

"Let's go to Mars"

Our first test of the robot was using the Makeblock App on the iPad. We've used a lot of Bluetooth robots and this one had the most seamless experience we've seen yet. 

We just turned the robot on and the app detected the mBot Ranger and connected to it.

We've also had good results using the Makeblock Android app on a phone and a Kindle Fire HD (via Google Play.)

Demo Projects

The app includes a set of demo projects so my son chose the Mars Explorer project which works with the robot in its Land Raider (tank with tracks) configuration.

He was instantly able to control the robot and change the brightness of the awesome ring of LEDs on top of the Ranger.

After establishing that everything was working as expected (phew! we go the motor wires correctly connected) he went straight on to creating his own project in the app. 

"I like this, it's really cool."

Custom Dashboard

This is very well thought through. The app allows you to create custom dashboards for the Ranger. You can choose a set of controls and displays and lay them out. 

This is a great way to play around with the robot instantly and understand the hardware. 

Drag and Drop Coding

"Now I'm programming the button to set the colours of the LEDs so it's a multi-coloured circle."
Next my son moved to the drag and drop coding interface in the app. I did not have to help here at all, he instantly got the idea and started coding. He added a button to the interface and programmed it to do a rainbow light display.

Here's the result:

Programming the mBot Ranger with mBlock

Next we downloaded the latest version of the Makeblock mBlock software on my son's PC. This is the same software that we have used before with the mBot. 

mBlock adds robot control blocks to Scratch which works really well. My kids know Scratch well and the mBlock environment builds naturally on their existing knowledge. 

While the mBlock software was downloading we took a look at the Mars Adventure of Mark online course material that goes with it. It starts with a story to read, it's poorly translated into English, but my son was able to get the gist of it. He really liked that in mentioned Makerspaces (we had been to ours to do some laser cutting the day before.)

The first chapter on the course includes lots of technical information about the robot which my son devoured. There are a few questions that kids can answer to check their understanding. The names of the robot builds differ from those in the product, but my son liked the idea of a Hunting Dog (Dashing Raptor).

Chapter 2 goes through the instructions for installing the Makeblock software and connecting to the Ranger. It then begins with some simple example code to write and run. 

The course currently ends there, but further chapters are promised. 

You can also program the Ranger with Arduino code, but we'll leave that for the future, there's plenty to do in the graphical block-based language for now. It's great to have Arduino available as a next step as it's so widely used. 

Before you Get Started


"Can I have another one for my birthday so I can build the Hunting Dog robot without taking this one apart?"

We've been fans of the mBot robots since we received our first robot from Kickstarter. In the early days there were some technical glitches but the experience with the mBot Ranger has been really smooth (with the exception of connecting the motors.)

The Ranger's powder coated metal parts look fantastic and are easy to work with. My son really felt that he had built a robot but the task wasn't too daunting. 

The Ranger is a very nice introduction to robotics for children. The progression from configuring a dashboard through block-based programming and eventually on to Arduino makes the Ranger suitable for a wide range of abilities. This means that it could be used by multiple members of a family or by the same child over a long period of time. 

The Me Auriga board comes with ports to add additional outputs and sensors. The ability to easily add extra, affordable, components means that it's easy to extend the robot (as we have done with our mBots.)

It's early days for the educational material for the Ranger, but the story based approach really appeals to my son. If you're looking for a robot that comes with a full robotics course then the Ranger is not there yet (but check the course website for the latest status), much of the course material for the mBot robot could also be adapted to the Ranger. The mBlock interface is pretty intuitive, especially if kids have already used Scratch or another block-based language, so kids are likely to be work out how to program the Ranger through exploration.

Being able to build multiple robots from the same kit is a great feature but my son doesn't want to take the Land Raider apart! I guess we'll have to wait to try out the other robots that you can make. I suspect that at some point he'll get interested in balancing robots and we'll get to try out the Nervous Bird.

The mBot Ranger is a great choice for kids who know Scratch or will be learning it at school. It's also a great base for teen or family robot projects that can be programmed with Scratch or Arduino.

The ability to attach LEGO figures and bricks is the killer feature of the Ranger as far as my son is concerned. It means that the Ranger can be part of his imaginative play. Having a robot that he can customize for different scenarios fits the way he and his brother play.

You can also buy the mBot Ranger direct from Makeblock where you'll also find lots of additional accessories.

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