iRobot's New Education Robot Makes Learning to Code a Little More Affordable

woman sitting with child at kitchen table with Root rt0
Photo: iRobot
iRobot is announcing a new version of Root for home use. The new Root rt0 is designed for kids age 6 and up.

By: Evan Ackerman

iRobot has been on a major push into education robots recently. They acquired Root Robotics in 2019, and earlier this year, launched an online simulator and associated curriculum designed to work in tandem with physical Root robots. The original Root was intended to be a classroom robot, with one of its key features being the ability to stick to (and operate on) magnetic virtual surfaces, like whiteboards. And as a classroom robot, at $200, it’s relatively affordable, if you can buy one or two and have groups of kids share them.

For kids who are more focused on learning at home, though, $200 is a lot for a robot that doesn't even keep your floors clean. And as nice as it is to have a free simulator, any kid will tell you that it’s way cooler to have a real robot to mess around with. Today, iRobot is announcing a new version of Root that’s been redesigned for home use, with a $129 price that makes it significantly more accessible to folks outside of the classroom.

The Root rt0 is a second version of the Root robot—the more expensive, education-grade Root rt1 is still available. To bring the cost down, the rt0 is missing some features that you can still find in the rt1. Specifically, you don’t get the internal magnets to stick the robot to vertical surfaces, there are no cliff sensors, and you don’t get a color scanner or an eraser. But for home use, the internal magnets are probably not necessary anyway, and the rest of that stuff seems like a fair compromise for a cost reduction of 30 percent.

It’s not all just taking away, though. There’s also a new $20 accessory, a LEGO-ish “Brick Top” that snaps onto the upper face of Root (either version) via magnets. The plate can be used with LEGO bricks and other LEGO-compatible things. This opens up an enormous amount of customization, and it’s for more than just decoration, since Root rt0 has the ability to interact with whatever’s on top of it via its actuated marker. Root can move the marker up and down, the idea being that you can programmatically turn lines on and off. By replacing the marker with a plastic thingy that sticks up through the body of the robot, the marker up/down command can be used to actuate something on the brick top. In the video, that’s what triggers the catapult.

This less expensive version of Root still has access to the online simulator, as well as the multi-level coding interface that allows kids to seamlessly transition through multiple levels of coding complexity, from graphical to text. There’s a new Android app coming out today, and you can access everything through web-based apps on Chrome OS, Windows and macOS, as well as on iOS. iRobot tells us that they’ve also recently expanded their online learning library full of Root-based educational activities. In particular, they’ve added a new category on “Social Emotional Learning,” the goal of which is to help kids develop things like social awareness, self-management, decision making, and relationship skills. We’re not quite sure how you teach those things with a little hexagonal robot, but we like that iRobot is giving it a try.

Root coding robots are designed for kids age 6 and up, ships for free, and is available now.

This article originally appeared in IEEE Spectrum on 29 July 2020.