Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) toys combine play with education. My 11-year-old daughter and I tried the Makeblock Airblock modular and programmable drone ($176) to see if it was fun and able to teach us anything without feeling like a boring science lesson.
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Airblock is a modular system of hexagonal rigid foam blocks. Six rotor blocks house a propeller and a seventh control block holds the brains and power. The blocks snap together with magnets to build a drone or, using the supplied foam base, a hovercraft. This modular system means many more builds are possible too.
You control Airblock with an app. It has a button for triggering the drone’s auto take-off and landing, plus two virtual joysticks for managing height, rotation and movement. It was a doddle to control – stable and very responsive, without being overly sensitive. My daughter Heidi had no trouble mastering it. Its responsiveness makes indoor flying possible in tight spaces, but to make the most of it you need more room. We took it to the school hall to really test out its flying tricks.
The Airblock weighs next to nothing, so flying the drone outdoors is limited to totally calm weather – even the lightest breeze would cause it to disappear downwind, causing frantic attempts to land it before it vanished for good. It links to your device using Bluetooth, so range is limited to about 30 metres at best.
Hovercraft mode uses a similar control setup in the app. It’s even easier to control than the drone, and we were instantly drifting it around. The hovercraft works on calm water too – just don’t run it out of Bluetooth range offshore!
Coding lifts the Airblock beyond a mere toy. Buttons on the standard control app launch tricks: the drone wiggles, pulls flips and flies in a circle; the hovercraft snakes forward or pulls “handbrake turns”. Those are a taste of what’s possible when you get coding. Like most STEM toys, the Airblock uses visual building blocks of code – Heidi tells me it’s a lot like the “Scratch” coding she’s used at school. You drag and drop pre-defined commands into sequence, add logic blocks (for example, IF-THEN loops), and amend settings such as motor power. It’s simple to learn, but powerful, as you can control each of the six propellers individually and use on-board sensors to trigger actions. Then, with a button-push, you can get Airblock to run through your programmed sequence. It’s lots of fun and, after a few false-start crashes, we had the Airblock taking off, running through a series of custom aerobatic tricks, then returning to land at our feet.
But that’s just the beginning. The modular design of the Airblock opens up other creations. The app has instructions to build and code a twin-propeller jet car and a spinning top, and beyond that, the sky’s the limit – just add imagination (or start by searching online for “airblock projects”) and go from there.
Bluetooth connected every time, but has limited control range. When out of range, the Airblock just keeps flying or hovering away until the battery runs out or it crashes. The battery lasts for about six minutes in the drone (but 15 minutes or more as a hovercraft, which doesn’t run all propellers at full power all the time). When you crash, which you will, the magnets mean it splits into re-buildable parts, rather than breaks. However, the rigid polystyrene does feel a bit flimsy. We broke a rotor piece in a crash, but it’s remained intact since being glued back together. Replacement modular rotor blocks are available for about $30 each. We also lost a propeller, but the Airblock comes with a full set of spares.
The Airblock has been a big hit with Heidi (and me). We’ve had it at home for more than a month and it hasn’t lost its appeal yet. She switches between just flying the drone and buzzing the hovercraft around and coding it. She says it’s fun and I see her getting into that “boring science and maths stuff” without realising it. It’s not just for kids either. I keep picking it up and it’s teaching me a thing or two about coding. It feels like mission accomplished.
By Paul Smith
Head of Testing
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