item #870850E by Erector/Meccano

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Due to problems with Spykee's charging base overcharging the battery, Meccano has issued a replacement charging dock that has a built-in four hour shut off timer. This is available to all current Spykee owners free of charge. All you have to do is send an email to sav@meccano.com with your full name and your mailing address. For more information on this issue, please visit the official Spykee website.

I have recently been looking into purchasing a telepresence robot. Currently, the only two options available are Rovio and Spykee. I haven't been able to decide which one to get, yet. Here I will try to point out all of the pros and cons of Erector's contribution to the robot world. Maybe after I finish these two pages, at least you'll know which one you want.

Well, I decided on Spykee after a host of bidding on eBay. After an anxious week waiting for our newest member to arrive, we spent the better part of an evening putting him together - almost four hours! Then, I spent two days trying to figure out how to get the freaking thing to work! Although you can install the proprietary software on a Linux system under Sun's VirtualBox, I could not get Linux to maintain a connection to the robot's server in AdHoc mode - a requirement for setting the parameters in the robot itself. I wound up having to run the software on a true Windows XP machine with an external USB wireless adapter. I was then able to set up the robot's server to connect over a local wireless connection. Then the real fun began.

Using a supposedly open-source software package (Meccano has yet to honor the GPL agreement and release their code) you can control Spykee remotely over the internet from anywhere in the world. This means that you can go on vacation and still be able to keep tabs on your home home - just log in to Spykee, drive him around the house and use the built-in camera and microphone to monitor what you're missing. The first problem is that the software only runs on PCs and Macs. If you run Linux on your laptop, as I do, or you want to use your iPhone or PDA, your out of luck. Also, to be able to use Spykee remotely, you must first register and account with SpykeeWorld.com - the official web site. I don't like the idea of my audio and video transmissions going through a third-party web site. Call me paranoid. On top of that, what happens if and/or when that web site goes down? We all know that products are not supported indefinitely. When the company no longer hosts that site, will your $300 robot become a really expensive paper weight? Something to consider... After talking with the company, I have found that this is not a problem. Their site acts as a DNS server pointing requests for communication with your robot to your IP address (which I figured). If their site were to go down for any reason, of if you just prefer to not use their service, you can bypass their DNS server and connect directly to your IP. For instructions on that, download the email from them here.

Another problem with this robot is that the angle of the camera (a low resolution 320x200 image with a 15 fps framerate) is fixed. You set the angle manually and then there is no way to change it remotely. So if you have the camera angled down so you can see where you are driving, then you aren't going to be able to see the faces of anyone you try to interact with. And if you have the angle set higher so that you can see people, you aren't going to be able to see anything that is in your way while you are trying to navigate the room. I have seen a hack where someone added a servo and tied it into a couple of LEDs on Spykee so that the camera angle could be changed on the fly. And if Meccano ever releases the software code, I am sure that it would be even easier to do. In the meantime, however, you are still left with a major design snafu straight out of the box.

Locomotion is provided by two tracks as opposed to Rovio's three-wheel design. This gives Spykee a better turning radius - practically on a dime - than Rovio, but combined with the fact that Spykee is slightly top heavy, it adds to the possibility that the robot will try to climb over an object and flip itself over. If that happens, it will have to sit there until you get home to manually right him yourself.

One feature that I like to see in a robot is said to be implemented in Spykee, but even by Meccano's own admission, it doesn't work quite as claimed. Brochures, press releases and even some reviews, both official and unofficial, claim that the robot can determine when it's battery is low, seek out it's charger and dock itself. That would be great, but Roomba is the only robot I have ever seen that can actually perform that maneuver successfully. Spykee will dock itself, but only after you have guided him to within a few feet of it's docking base. Not very autonomous if you ask me. And more than a little misleading.

That's another drawback - there is nothing at all autonomous about Spykee. He is only capable of following commands that you give it. If you tell it to go forward and then somehow you lose your internet connection, you are liable to find that, having continued to follow your 'forward' command blindly, Spykee has run into an object and is now lying flat on his back wheels just a-spinnin'. At the very least I think it should have an object-detection and avoidance system. And the ability to patrol it's surroundings on it's own, perhaps emailing you if anything out of the ordinary is found, would be a fantastic addition to it's somewhat limited repertoire.

You might be asking, 'Are there any advantages to this robot!?' To be honest, after re-reading what I've written, I am too! One thing that draws me to this robot is the fact that it actually looks like a robot, whereas Rovio looks like a freaking UFO. Another tick in the pro column is the name. Erector is a well-established company with years of customer service to stand behind. WowWee (the makers of Rovio) cannot make the same claim. I sent Meccano an email requesting further clarification on the auto-docking claim. The email was bounced back stating that the recipients mailbox was too full. That was enough to make me question my faith in the Erector name. Then, somehow, I received an answer to the question that had been returned to me as undeliverable! Explain that one! Now as for WowWee's customer support, did you know that if you don't buy their robot from one of their 'approved' retailers (and they will not tell you who those retailers are) then they will not honor the warranty? Check out this page for more information on that subject. I will say this... every question I've had for Erector/Meccano, they have answered within a day or two. Just like customer service should be (are you listening WowWee?)

Another thing that I like about Spykee is that, being an erector set, you have to build it before you can use it. With 210 parts, and the ability to use pieces from any Erector set, the final design of your robot is limited only by your imagination.

All in all, I have to say that I am extremely pleased with my decision. I will have to do something about the stationary camera problem, and I plan on adding a couple of additional flashlights to aid in "night vision", but overall... well worth the price of admission.    : )

Year Released: 2007
Original Price: $300

Technical Specifications:
Processor: unknown proprietary design
Power Supply: 9.6v NiMH rechargeable battery pack

Dimensions: 14" tall x 8" square
Weight: 4.5 lbs

Click Here to Download the Spykee PC Manual
Click Here to Download the Spykee Mac Manual

Spykee can built in either standard, scorpion or lunar configurations
or any other design that you can create

Since the Official Site is no longer up, I don't think anyone will care if I host the software here, so...

Click Here to Download the Spykee Software for PC
Click Here to Download the Spykee Software for Mac

Erector/Mecanno has finally released the Source Code for Spykee's firmware under the GNU Licensing Agreement. You can download it from their web site here.

Visit the Official Web Site