Dronemaker DJI has spent the last few years running a massive robotics competition in China called RoboMasters, where students build and code robots that do battle in a literal arena. Now, DJI wants to sell a more approachable version of that idea to kids in the US, Europe, and Japan, with an educational toy robot tank called the RoboMaster S1.
The RoboMaster S1 is one part camera-equipped remote-controlled car, one part educational platform, and one part DJI flexing its fully mature hardware and software muscles. Available starting Wednesday for $499, the S1 can be driven using a mobile app, or coded to move on its own. It’s equipped with 31 sensors that help it map its environment, and it can move in 360 degrees thanks to cleverly-designed wheels.
Much like DJI’s newest drones, the S1 can recognize and respond to gestures and sounds, or track objects, all using computer vision. (It’s equipped with a camera that has an f2.4 aperture and a wide 120-degree field of view, which streams its view over Wi-Fi to the mobile app.) But unlike DJI’s drones, the S1 can shoot projectiles in the form of little gel bead bullets. These beads come in super small form but puff up once submerged in water for a few hours; they’re nontoxic, but will require some cleanup after use.
The RoboMaster S1 can also be driven with controller, though that will be sold separately in an add-on package that includes an extra battery and more gel beads, which will be available at a later date.
The S1 was impressive during a short press briefing. It responds to controls with almost imperceptible lag, both in how it traverses across the floor and in how the head responds to aiming commands. DJI had us run through a few different types of use cases, including a race, where we not only had to beat our opponents, but were required to scan a series of images along the way in order to win.
We also tested out the S1 robots in a “battle mode,” where we drove them around a makeshift arena. The person who scored the most points won (done by shooting opponents in the S1’s LED-lit sensitive areas, just like in the real RoboMasters, though this can be done with gel beads or with lasers), and along the way there were chances to recharge health and gain special abilities by scanning special images set up around the arena.
DJI believes the value of the S1, though, is that it will give kids outside of China a taste of what it’s like to be a part of the RoboMasters competition. As such, the S1 is highly customizable, and made to be tinkered with. It comes disassembled, so kids have to put almost every piece together just to get started. They can write Scratch 3.0 or Python code to control things as granular as the torque of the wheels, allowing them to program the S1 to do all sorts of things, like pull off evasive maneuvers in battle (another echo of the competition).
DJI has developed a suite of video tutorials and guides to help users learn how to do all this, even if they’ve never coded before. “The hope is that robotics will become a major sport, like football, basketball. That’s our vision for this product,” Shuo Yang, the head of the S1 project, told Bloomberg.
The S1 announcement comes at a somewhat precarious time, for a few reasons. For one, the US is currently locked in a trade war with China, and at the same time is accusing one of its biggest private companies (Huawei) of being able to spy on behalf of the Chinese government.
That combination of forces has raised the hackles so high that the US government is looking elsewhere for Chinese companies that might pose a national security risk. Just last month, the Department of Homeland Security raised an alert about Chinese-made drones potentially being able to capture and transmit sensitive data back to the Chinese government. With DJI accounting for nearly 80 percent of drones in North America, it was viewed as a shot across the dronemaker’s bow.
The RoboMaster S1 is obviously far more limited in where it can travel, but it does have a high-resolution camera onboard. That could raise other concerns, as consumers (and even some in government) have become more sensitive about allowing cameras in the home.
DJI is also presenting the S1 in somewhat militaristic language, which not only might grate with some consumers given the current tension between the US and China, but also because last week marked the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests, where a man famously stood in front of (and stopped) Chinese military tanks.