The DJI Robomaster S1 is the childhood toy I always wanted. Actually, it’s way better than that. Compared to junk like the Tyco Rebound I had in the 90’s, the Robomaster S1 is faster, more sophisticated, and thanks to its Mecanum wheels, much more nimble than anything my tiny kid brain could have even imagined. And that’s before you consider the Robomaster’s built-in camera, dual blasters, and its programmability. Only there’s a cost to all this, and with a base price of $500, it’s a big one. So is it worth it?
Robots can be really fun toys. They can also be amazing learning tools for children interested in studying STEM. The best ones are both, like Lego Mindstorms and the new DJI Robomaster S1. DJI is best known for its drones, so its launch of a four-wheeled programmable robot for kids might come as a surprise. The remarkable engineering and programming that make DJI such a big figure in the quadcopter market can be seen in this $499 robot, though, with its incredibly nimble design, excellent camera turret, and impressive automatic tracking. Add support for programming in Python and Scratch, and you have a remarkably powerful tool that doubles as a really fun toy as well as Editors’ Choice.
The RoboMaster S1 arrives disassembled. You have to put the robot together from several dozen components, fastening and screwing the different parts of the wheels, chassis, and turret. The process appears to be fairly engaging and potentially challenging, like putting together a model kit, and no soldering is required. However, the review unit we received from DJI came fully assembled, so we cannot speak to the experience of opening the box and putting together the parts.
Once assembled, the S1 is an imposing little robot. Its core section is covered in translucent armor panels, with the front, back, and sides each sporting a pair of optical sensors. A transparent dark gray window on the top of the chassis, near the rear, reveals the black and orange wires that connect each component to the robot’s core. The back armor panel pops up to reveal the battery compartment.
The robot’s four Mecanum wheels are deceptively agile. Instead of tires or treads, each wheel is covered in a series of wide, diagonally aligned rubber sub-wheels that spin independently of the main wheel. This enables the S1 to instantly roll in any direction, regardless of its position. Instead of steering the S1 like a car or a tank, you can effectively move it around like a mouse, strafing left and right as easily as rolling forward and backward.
Then there’s the turret, which can be best seen as the S1’s head. Its gun barrel is its most striking component, a prominent gray plastic tube with a bright orange tip and two holes for shooting harmless blasts of light or tiny gel beads. A compartment in the back of the turret holds one of two included cartridges for the gel beads. A single camera above the base of the barrel serves as the S1’s eye, through which you can see what it sees using a tablet, smartphone, or computer. The camera is paired with a microphone/speaker mounted below the barrel, like a gun. The sides of the turret each sport multicolored LED rings that show the robot’s status.
Above the camera sits a flat plastic bed where the intelligent controller, the actual “brain” of the robot, is mounted. It’s a rectangular box with two flip-up antennae, a microSD card slot, a wireless mode switch, a connection button, and a Scratch program run button. The intelligent controller also has mini USB and USB-C ports, a separate USB-C port dedicated to the camera, a 2.5mm port for the speaker, and a CAM port for connecting to the rest of the robot. Thanks to its modular design, the S1 can accept different components for anyone looking to experiment with robotics, though DJI only currently offers the stock components already included with the robot, and has not announced any optional components or alternative configurations.
Assuming Direct Control
To use the S1, you need to connect your smartphone, tablet, or computer to the robot. You can do this directly using Mobile mode that creates an ad-hoc Wi-Fi network you can connect to, or you can use Router mode to connect the robot to your Wi-Fi network by making it scan a QR code with your network information generated by the RoboMaster app. Once you’ve gotten your device of choice talking to the robot either directly or through your Wi-Fi network, you can start playing with it.
The most simple and direct way to play with the S1 is Solo mode, which lets you treat the robot as a remote-controlled drone. The screen becomes a live video feed of the S1’s camera, with a few additional buttons and indicators. Pressing down on the left side of the screen forms a circle with a larger circle around it. Dragging and holding around the outer circle, as if you are using an analog stick on a gamepad, makes the robot move in that direction. The S1 will freely move backward or forward, or slide left or right relative to the direction the chassis is facing, but it won’t turn.
To turn the S1 more like a traditional remote control vehicle, you need to press on the right side of the screen to bring up another set of circles. This makes the turret move in any direction, looking up or down and turning left or right. Once the turret spins past a certain point relative to the chassis, the entire robot will start to turn. This lets you steer the S1 more traditionally, using your left thumb to accelerate or reverse and your right thumb to turn. The S1 can turn and slide simultaneously, letting you perform some remarkable tricks like strafing around a target while keeping the turret locked onto it.
You can also control the S1 with the optional $79 gamepad accessory, which is a black tablet holder with an analog stick. You can put your tablet in it and use the analog stick and control buttons to precisely drive the S1, but the touch screen controls are so responsive it seems unnecessary.
The S1’s camera is very good, which is unsurprising considering DJI’s history with drone cameras. It displays crisp, bright 1080p video streamed with nearly no lag to your phone or tablet. You can capture video through the app and save it to your mobile device, or record still photos or video clips to a microSD card inserted into the robot itself. Don’t expect the same kind of picture quality or shooting options you can get with DJI’s aerial drones, like the 4K Mavic 2 Pro, but as a toy rather than a cinematography tool, it’s compelling.
The weapon button on the app can be set to fire a harmless green light with a sound effect, or a gel bead loaded from the turret’s ammunition cartridge. Tapping fires one shot, and holding the button rapid fires. A targeting button digitally zooms in for better aiming, but you can’t steer the S1 while zoomed in. The “laser” of course doesn’t benefit much from the zoom aim, but it can make your shots more accurate with the gel beads. The S1 comes with a small bottle of the tiny beads, but their size is deceiving. They must be soaked in water, which makes them expand into rubbery balls the size of tapioca. A small capful can completely fill the S1’s ammo cartridge after soaking.
Be careful with the bead ammo, and wear the included safety glasses when firing them. They sting less than Airsoft pellets or paintballs, but they can still potentially cause eye damage or knock over fragile objects. They’re also a small nuisance to clean up, forming tiny bits of gel that need to be vacuumed if you don’t want them mashed into the carpet.
A tracking button scans the S1’s view for any shapes it recognizes as people, letting you lock onto them. Once locked on, you can tap that person to make the S1 follow them. The S1 will then roll after them, following at a short distance until it loses sight of the target. It’s a fascinating and unnerving mode that reliably follows anyone as long as the S1 can see them.
The S1 is a zippy little robot. The app control defaults to a Medium speed that’s already brisk, but at its fastest setting, the S1 can roll forward at nearly 12 feet per second, backward at 8.2 feet per second, and sideways at 9.1 feet per second. It can handle bumping against objects at full speed very well, but don’t expect the same with drops; the turret and its antenna are fragile compared with the chassis, and a spill of a few feet onto a hard surface can cause damage. The S1 also isn’t waterproof.
If you have more than one S1 or if you have friends who have their own, you can play in Battle mode. This lets you pit your robots against each other, using their light guns to fight. We were unable to test this feature with our single review unit.
Coding From Scratch
Of course, the Robomaster S1 is much more than a remote-controlled vehicle. It’s also an educational tool for learning how to code. Much like Lego Mindstorms and other robotics kits, the Robomaster S1 features an extensive programming suite with lessons and tutorials for learning the basics of programming. These features are accessible through the Robomaster app’s Lab section.
The S1 supports two separate programming languages, Python and Scratch. Scratch is a visual, tile-based programming language that uses blocks that snap together to form commands without typing code or worrying about syntax. The language itself was developed by MIT as a freely available educational tool for learning programming, and is used in many schools. The Scratch implementation in the Robomaster app uses the same concepts and structure as “pure” Scratch, so the logical and structural skills learned with the S1 can apply in classes that use Scratch, and vice versa.
The app focuses mostly on Scratch, because it’s accessible to users of all ages and doesn’t depend on strict text syntax to work. It offers nine individual lessons in creating increasingly complex programs for the S1, starting with simply spinning around and culminating in identifying and attacking specific targets. The lessons get impressively complicated, covering dozens of different tiles that determine how the robot moves and makes decisions. For learning the basic concepts of programming, it’s a very useful tool.
If you want to go deeper into coding, the S1 also supports Python. Python is a text-based, high-level programming language, so it’s much more powerful but requires significantly more skill and accuracy in syntax. Scratch is designed for children ages eight and up, while Python is more appropriate for high school programming students and higher (even going beyong education and into professional development).
My coding skills end at kludgy Arduino and Perl scripts, so programming the S1 in Python is a bit beyond my capabilities. I played with Scratch, however, and I was pleasantly surprised by how powerful this accessible language for children is. Scratch includes enough support for programming fundamentals like functions and operators to enable some very interesting decision-making based on input from the robot’s camera and impact sensors. If I had the S1 when I was a child, I’d probably know a whole lot more about coding now.
Pricey, Powerful, and Educational
As a remote-controlled vehicle, the DJI RoboMaster S1 is zippy and fun to use, like a land-bound drone that can shoot lasers and gel pellets. And as a programmable robot it offers a plethora of functions through Scratch, with lessons that walk you through building the robot up from a car that can spin around to a cybernetic tracker and hunter. Python support and a modular design with the potential for switching and adding different modules make the robot a useful tool for teens and older students as well. Its only limitation is that its modular design is currently stock-only, and the ability to swap out and add new components simply isn’t available yet. Still, this is a well-designed and accessible robot that is both incredibly fun and educational, and earns our Editors’ Choice.
- Fast and smart.
- Good camera.
- Multiple ways to play.
- Supports both Pyhton and Scratch programming.
- Modular aspect is less apparent than other robot kits.
- No alternative configurations available yet.