Lego has a new programmable robot kit after 7-year Mindstorms hiatus

There's a new STEM option in town. The Robot Inventor kit can be turned into five robots, which can play basketball, walk, and shoot darts at intruders.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
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The Lego Mindstorms Gelo, a quadrupedal robot, is one of five programmable, computer controlled robots available in the Robot Inventor kit.

The Lego Mindstorms Gelo, a quadrupedal robot, is one of five programmable, computer-controlled robots available in the Robot Inventor kit.

Lego; illustration by Stephen Shankland/CNET

If you're into programmable Lego robots , good news: For the first time in seven years, there's a new Mindstorms kit. The 949-piece, $360 (£330) Robot Inventor kit offers directions for building five different robots, but as you'd expect with Lego, it can be used to build whatever else you want. And it could be just the ticket for parents hoping to keep housebound kids occupied.

Lego began with simple plastic building blocks, but the Danish company in 1977 started adding more-advanced Technic kits with more-sophisticated gears, struts, axles and other mechanical components. When they first arrived in 1998, the Mindstorms kits added computers to the mix. They're controlled using software you can create with Lego developer tools running for iPhones , Android phones , Windows or MacOS PCs.

The most recent Mindstorm upgrade was the EV3 computer, a more advanced model that runs the Linux operating system and that arrived in 2013. After a long hiatus, Mindstorms announced the Robot Inventor kit on Friday. Its flagship element is the new Intelligent Hub that's got six input-output ports, a 5x5 LED display, an accelerometer sensor for detecting orientation and movement, Bluetooth and USB connectivity, and a speaker.

The kit fits into a widespread push to get kids more adept with STEM subjects -- science, technology, engineering and math. STEM efforts are widespread in schools, but companies are trying to capitalize on parents' desire to do more at home, too.

Robots, which can be more exciting for kids than characters on a computer screen, have long been a tool to try to teach programming. The new Mindstorms kit could be a good summer project for kids who are stuck at home during the coronavirus pandemic and can't go to summer camp or visit the grandparents.

The Mindstorms kits can be intimidating, even if you're just following instructions, my colleague Scott Stein found. And if you have younger kids, you might look at the Lego Boost robot projects that arrived in 2017.

The Robot Inventor Kit lets you build five models.

Blast can hammer obstacles, grab things, and fire darts if it senses movement. Charlie can give high fives, play drums and dance. Tricky is a sports bot that can bowl, play soccer and slam dunk a basketball. Gelo can walk on its four legs and avoid obstacles. And MVP is a remote controlled vehicle that can be a foundation for things like buggies or cranes.

Some of their behaviors come through grafting on accessories like grabbers, cranes, turrets, brick eaters and hammers.