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MOSS Review, Magnetic Robotics Construction

Modular Robotics

I first saw MOSS the second or third time I went to hang out with the Modular Robotics people. You know, the people who make robot building kits so simple that a two year old can play with them. Previously, I had the opportunity to check out Cubelets a couple of times with Eric Schweikardt, owner and founder of Modular Robotics. The initial meeting and first time I ever saw Cubelets included getting to play with the Bluetooth reprogramming unit. Talk about fun with amazing educational potential! This was the first time I had met Mark Gross, however. A couple of minutes into our conversation he stroked his long beard and said, with a twinkle in his eye, “Do you like Legos?” I assured him that Legos was a mainstay of my childhood. Spacecraft was my main focus, I believe I assured him. Then he asked me if I like magnets. I love magnets. Magnets are so *expletive* cool that I bought a whole bunchway too many… far too few the first time Bucky Balls went out of business and am considering a yearly journey to a little place I know in Georgia that has piles upon piles of larger spherical magnets. (I may be exaggerating a little.) I’d also seen some recent magnetic bots that were exceeding amazing. (I’m not exaggerating at all.) But yeah, I would have gotten sidetracked onto how much I love magnets if he hadn’t followed that comment immediately with a smile and said, “Check this out.” That was when I first saw MOSS. I think it was the first time I really got a little twinge of jealousy towards the kids who get to grow up playing with things as cool as MOSS. The best justice I can do is to say that it’s like if Legos and a bunch of robotic fridge magnets had a baby and that baby grew up to be an engineer that could reassemble itself to perform a multitude of tasks. It’s that awesome. I was a little jealous.

You can build spacecraft, animals and even functional designs such as this one. 

Video by Erik Schweikardt

Created by Modular Robotic’s Director of Engineering, Jon Hiller, as a postdoctoral project, MOSS is an expansion of Modular’s intuitive robotics creation line. The system uses medium sized stainless steel ball bearings and each unit has magnets that hold the bearing ball in contact, either as a joint or a structural connection. With connections on each side of the modules I could build input and output circuits by placing modules that either passed information on to the next module or performed an input or an output of some type. The magnets allowed me to create a structure with give, torsion and interesting mobility. A single ball bearing connection between MOSS units creates a joint with full rotational freedom (also known as a universal joint), adding a second ball bearing between the two units turns it into an elbow joint and adding a third or fourth ball bearing creates a structure without any movement. The real genius in MOSS is that the ground signal travels through the ball bearings themselves, solving two design problems at once, both structural and electrical. The kinesthetic pleasure of snapping together MOSS is something you can really only experience in person. I’ve seen kids and adults alike mesmerized by the way Modular Robotics’ offerings gently snap together without any much need to worry about polarity or orientation.

The MOSS line includes 19 different units-

Catalog of MOSS units

Of special interest is the “Double Brain”, basically a Bluetooth unit for MOSS, similar to the Cubelets one I talked about above. With the Double Brain people with coding experience can redefine the capabilities of the units with on board logic such as the sensors and outputs or even create a remote control for their creations. There’s no MOSS specific IDE so people need to figure out how to create their own C code. Luckily Modular Robotics will provide example code and there’s always tools like ArduBlock to help beginners and educators.

An early build with MOSS prototypes. 

Video by Erik Schweikardt

I hope they continue to expand this particular set. I encourage anyone who can get their hands on two or three of their larger sets to really push the limits. I can’t imagine what one could build. Or better yet, somebody might make a relay unit to control larger circuits with MOSS! Then I could make the breakfast building robot I hope to build someday MOSS activated, or at least MOSS incorporated.

Cubelets and MOSS robots

Cubelets and MOSS

MOSS is expensive, but what cutting edge robotic tools or toys aren’t? I figure that as Eric, Mark and John maximize efficiency around Modular Robotics headquarters that price will come down and more people will be able to get their hands on these amazing toys. I’ve seen this company go from using the SparkFun pick and place during off hours to create the Cubelets guts to getting their own line of production machines. The first time I visited them they were in a small house that had been converted to robotics production and now they have a sweet set up close to one of my favorite radio stations complete with dogs, kegerator and a much larger team complete with an Education department. I’ve also seen some comments on the ModRobotics website that indicated despite the intuitive nature of MOSS some users were unable to get some of the example builds working flawlessly. Luckily the Modular Robotics people responded quickly with a fix and acknowledged that a little tweaking might be necessary. Here’s hoping they continue to grow at the pace they’ve set for themselves as well as expanding the offerings of interesting and unique systems such as Cubelets and MOSS. In the meantime, I’ll try to quell my jealousy of the kids who get to play with these things and try not to push the budding engineers aside too much while I’m playing teaching with the systems.

All images courtesy of Modular Robotics.