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Kickstarter Alert: Explore Engineering with Crowbits

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Here’s a kit for kids who love building and engineering: Crowbits!

Crowbits are a modular toy developed by Hong Kong–based Elecrow, and they’re currently seeking funding on Kickstarter with just a couple of days left to go in their campaign. There are a number of different kits available, ranging from about $26 to $90, plus some tiers available if you want to get a variety of kits. Elecrow sent me three kits to try out—the Explorer, Creator, and Inventor. (The Hello kit is the simplest, and the Master kit is the most complex.)

New to Kickstarter? Check out our crowdfunding primer.

Crowbits modules: power source, button, and switch
Each module has magnetic connectors and is LEGO compatible. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

At the heart of Crowbits are the modules—small blocks with various functions that snap together easily. Each module has some connectors that fit together magnetically. The bottoms have LEGO-compatible sockets, and the sides of the smaller modules also have sockets that fit the LEGO Technic-style shaft connectors.

Crowbits Explorer Kit modules
The modules in the Explorer kit. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

The explorer kit comes with 13 modules. The power supply charges up with a microUSB cable and has an on/off button, with six connectors on its sides. Yellow modules are for input: a vibration sensor, a magnetic switch, an IR reflective sensor, a switch, a button, and an adjustable light sensor. The green modules are for output: an LED, a buzzer, a motor, and a relay. There are two other blue modules aside from the power supply: the expansion simply allows for more connections to be made, and the radio controller works with the included remote to activate four different modules depending on which button is pushed.

Crowbits LED with switch
The cables allow for a bit more flexibility while assembling modules. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

To build the various circuits, you just snap the modules together in order—they “read” from left to right. An input module can control multiple outputs connected to it, but if you alternate input-output then each input only controls the next output module. There are also some cables so that you can make longer connections. These also just snap on magnetically, though we found that because the cable itself is a little stiff, you can end up pulling the connection apart if you try to bend it too much in a direction—that’s my primary complaint about the components. Other than that, it’s very cool the way you can just snap together the modules to create a gadget.

Crowbits house with LED
This house has a light sensor that turns on the LED when the room is dimmer. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

The kits include various other components besides the modules: for instance, there are various cardboard templates that you fold and assemble for some of the projects in the manual. Most had some metal strips inside so that you could attach the components to them with the built-in magnets. The house pictured above has a light sensor that controls the LED “porch light” above it. You can tweak the sensitivity of the light sensor so that the LED turns on when the room is dim, and turns off when there’s more ambient light. Other projects included a bank box that would detect when a dollar bill was inserted in the front slot and then pulled it in with a motor-driven wheel, a “minesweeper” tool that would light up and beep when it was held over a hidden magnet, and a climbing monkey activated by the vibration sensor.

Crowbits swing
The kit also includes some building pieces for creating structures controlled by the Crowbits. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

There are also some LEGO-style components included that can be used to make various robots, vehicles, and machines controlled by the Crowbits motors. In the Explorer kit, these are mostly simpler machines run by the single motor, though they play around with a simple on/off switch, the IR sensor, and so on for activating the machines. Above is a spinning swing that my daughter assembled that’s just run by the push-button switch.

Crowbits fan
The fan uses the relay and the IR sensor. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

The fan uses some of the additional components—a battery pack and motor that hook up to the relay module. The fan turns on when you place something over the IR sensor and turns off when you remove it. The fan blades can also be swapped out for a spinner to play a game.

My 7-year-old has worked through most the dozen projects in the Explorer kit mostly on her own. She needed a little help with some projects like the wiring on the fan and figuring out how to attach them to the relay. Also, the cardstock for the fold-and-assemble components is fairly stiff, so it was sometimes hard to get things to hold together neatly with the provided tape because they wanted to pop back apart, but they worked well enough to see how the projects worked.

The Inventor kit and the Creator kit are where you start getting into some more coding. The Inventor kit is based on micro:bit, a little car that can be controlled in various ways: object avoidance, Bluetooth remote control, gestures, and path-tracking. The Creator kit has an Arduino, so you can build various Bluetooth-enabled contraptions that go along with programs that you code yourself. I haven’t had time to dig into these yet, unfortunately, but the kits include some other cool modules like an LED matrix, a vibration motor, a linear potentiometer, and a color sensor.

Functionally, the Crowbits are similar to things like the LittleBits Code Kit (acquired by Sphero last year), but the LEGO compatibility is a nice added feature for construction. The manuals introduce the modules and show how everything is assembled and what the modules do, though they didn’t always explain how the modules worked. (In the case of the relay, the explanation is a bit more technical than my 7-year-old could understand.)

Overall, we’ve had fun with the Crowbits kits so far—the kits arrived near the end of our spring break so we spent some time trying them out. I think the coding kits will be an excellent activity for this summer when school is out, and one that my older kids may be interested in as well.

For more information or to make a pledge, visit the Crowbits Kickstarter page! (But be quick: the campaign ends in a few more days.)

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