The democratization of the drone

Homegrown electronics manufacturer Parallax is empowering a wave of DIY robotics, from flying quadcopters to programmable robots.

ROCKLIN, Calif. -- When a gust of wind picks up your latest design for a radio-controlled drone, flips it into an oncoming car, and shears the paint right off, there's not much you can do but apologize and pay the bill.

It's an unfortunate consequence of working for a company that specializes in building do-it-yourself robot kits, says Jim Carey, the sales and marketing director at Parallax.

Founded in 1986 by Chip Gracey in his Sacramento, Calif.-area apartment, Parallax's first products included sound digitizers for the Apple II. When the company began producing the BASIC Stamp module in 1992, it gave home electronics enthusiasts their first programmable microcontroller.

It was so popular, according to Parallax's official history, that the company was able to expand from three to five employees. By the end of 1998, more than 125,000 BASIC Stamp modules had been sold, and by 2002, that number had shot up to more than 3 million.

Currently tucked away in the kind of nondescript, low-rise suburban office park that grew to ubiquitousness in the mid-1990s, Parallax currently employs around 45 people in its dual-purpose focus on DIY kits and home electronics education.

Parallax sells six main kits on its Web site, but it's the Elev-8 quadcopter kit that is skyrocketing in popularity. Based on the company's newer chip, the multicore, C-programmable Propeller, the Elev-8 can be expanded to a hexcopter, and can carry payloads, like cameras, of up to 2.5 pounds. It'll also run you $599, around six times the cost of some competitors.

"There are other options that are cheaper," says Carey, "but people know our quality, and they know our support."

Carey explained that the higher-quality parts, the support call center, and the online forums, combined with the fact that the Elev-8 is made in the United States, make the Elev-8 worth the extra cash.

"If you buy a Chinese quadcopter, you don't get any support and you don't get the product right away," he said. The Elev-8 has sold around 350 units in the past year, with nearly 500 sold since it debuted. The Elev-8's Propeller chip lives on a Hoverfly circuit board, which Hoverfly builds into its own high-end drones that get sold to law enforcement and Hollywood studios.

But Parallax's most popular kit, says Carey, is the solder-free, programmable BOE-bot, a fist-sized rolling robot powered by the BASIC Stamp 2 microcontroller. It's sold more than 500,000 units since its debut a decade and a half ago. BOE stands for Board of Education, the robot's programmable circuit board.

This looks like Parallax's Elev-8 kit, but is actually a much bigger prototype. Seth Rosenblatt/CNET

"The BOE-bot is the number one-selling education robot in the world," said Parallax president Ken Gracey, Chip's brother. Originally sold at the university level, the company now helps middle school teachers teach their 5th graders how to use it.

It's even been Boy Scout approved: Putting it together can help get you a Robotics Merit Badge.

Combining the kits with education has been a big part of Parallax's success, explained Carey. "It's what sets us apart," he said. Competitors such as Arduino and the Parrot AR drone are not only lighter on documentation, but lack the dedicated educational infrastructure.

Designed and packaged as an educational kit by Parallax, Boe-Bot can be set to obey a set of custom commands, such as traveling a predetermined path on the ground or wandering until it encounters an obstacle (such as a foot) and stopping a set length away. Seth Rosenblatt/CNET

The company hosts classes to teach educators how to build and program its bots at its headquarters here, but it also keeps an updated education site at learn.parallax.com.

Parallax isn't hovering in stand-by mode, either. The company is moving forward with a version of the BOE-bot that has the Propeller chip, to appeal to customers that have asked for a wheeled robot that can be programmed in C. It's also working on a monstrous version of the Elev-8 that's large enough to carry a 15-pound payload, which came about when Gracey built a prototype on the side and realized that he could source the parts without too much trouble.

The combination of do-it-yourself popularity and affordable parts puts Parallax on top of a wave of public interest. "It's going back to how it was in the 1970s. People just want to build stuff," he concluded.

 

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