One of my all-time favorite adult toys is the Plantraco Desktop Rover (I have the ‘pre-laser tag’ version, and sadly, they do not seem to sell this anymore. I liked it because it was a device I could play with on a desktop (hence the clever name) and imagine it being a Mars rover, or an alien scout vehicle, or whatever.
The $40 MSRP toy comes with the actual TankBot itself (available in 4 colors, each with its own frequency), a remote-control dongle for the earphone jack of your smartphone, and that’s about it. There are some instructions on the packaging, and some on-line if you need more assistance. The TankBot does amazingly well on the Gadgeteer Creak Test overall.
The actual tank is about 2.5″ tall, 2″ wide, and about 2.25″ long and very light. A small folding ‘ramp’ in the rear is the USB charging plug, and it has LEDs inside the front windshield that act like a combination of eyes and headlights. They do not actually project light but have several brightness levels. What looks like two headlights seem to be the sensors. The overall design is simple and kind of cute. It is even cuter since it has a bit of a personality programmed in – it cries, honks, snores, beeps, and makes other noises.
The tank unit charges through the USB plug built into its back (see image below). On my laptop, it blocked the other USB port and was held at an odd angle. It takes about 40 minutes to get 15 minutes of play. The remote control dongle has an ‘off’ switch (that I always forget about) and uses 3 L1154F (AG13, LR44) batteries.
Press the button for two seconds to turn it on, then press again to change between the three modes:
- Obstacle Avoidance Mode – uses sensors to avoid barriers in front of it over a couple inches tall. In this mode it can run mazes, etc. It does not, however, sense drop-offs or things in front if it that can flip it over.
- Autonomous Personality Mode – it runs around flashing the lights and making noises. When it gets stuck, it usually either snores or cries.
- Smartphone Control – uses a dongle in the earphone jack and a downloaded free app to control the unit. The controller uses two simple sliders to control each track independently. Note that the receivers are in the front of the unit so it does not respond as well when controlled from behind.
It does the cries and so on in all modes, which rather detracts from imagining it is a Mars Rover or spy device – a ‘noises off’ switch would be nice. The unit is also a bit top-heavy, with a very small wheelbase and a very steep angle in the front treads, so it really does not take much to make it flip over. It is definitely not designed as an ‘all-terrain’ device. In ‘remote control’ mode, I find I have to reset the connection pretty much every time, but that may be something I am doing wrong somehow (possibly forgetting to turn off the dongle!)
The above aside, it is kind of fun to play with. In mode 1, it will avoid your hands and almost any kind of barrier that is tall enough for it to ‘see’. You can make a neat maze with just pieces of paper folded to stand up on their own, and the website has a cool video of it running a maze. Mode 2 has more limited play potential but it still kind of fun to watch.
Mode 3, ‘Smartphone Control’, is what I had the most hope for! Like my old Desktop Rover, there are two joysticks – forward and back for each tread. The problems I keep seeing are a delay in responsiveness, and an inconsistent tendency to not return to neutral. Much of the time I needed to reverse whatever the previous command was to get that tread to stop moving. These two issues really made it tough to enjoy the unit on smaller play areas – it just rarely felt like it was under my control.
Seeing this in action will be worth a thousand more words, so…