Drones are the hot new tech toy. Legos are a perennial favorite.
What better, then, than to put them together?
San Francisco startup Flybrix has come up with what may be the best mashup since Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups: kits of Lego pieces and other parts that allow kids of all ages to build drones.
The kits aren’t cheap – they start at $169 on an early-adopter sale – but the drones they make can be customized and reconfigured in ways that the typical toy drone can’t. Oh, and unlike some of the cheaper drones you’ll find at the mall, they can survive numerous crashes – a feature that comes in handy for first-time fliers.
“It sounds cool for kids,” said Brian Blau, an analyst who looks at drones and other consumer technologies for market research firm Gartner. “To be honest, I wish I had a Lego drone!”
Flybrix’s kits come with approximately 40 parts, including Lego pieces for building the drones’ airframes, eight rotors for getting them off the ground, a battery to supply power and a circuit board for controlling the craft. Although most of the building blocks are standard Lego pieces, Flybrix custom-designed and made the Lego-like arms that hold the rotors, since there wasn’t an off-the-shelf part that would work.
Founded by a group of Lego enthusiasts, Flybrix is aiming to cash in not only on the growing market for drones, but also on the burgeoning maker movement and the increasing emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM.
Users can build the drones and start flying in less than 15 minutes, Flybrix estimates. They can control them with an iPhone or Android smartphone app. Or, if consumers spend about $40 extra for a deluxe kit, they can use a dual-joystick remote control, which is similar to what is used to fly an RC airplane.
Both the basic and deluxe kits have enough parts to build one hand-sized drone with four, six or even eight rotors. The drones will fly about five to seven minutes on a single charge. Although the battery takes about 30 minutes to recharge, it’s a standard type and users can swap it out if they want to keep flying.
The kits are going on sale amid a booming market for consumer drones. In the year ended August 2016, U.S. consumers spent $250 million purchasing 1.2 million drones, according to the NPD Group, a market research firm. That was up more than 300 percent from the same period a year earlier, while the number of drones purchased increased 258 percent.
IHS, a separate industry research firm, expects worldwide consumer drone sales to more than double between this year and 2020, both in revenue and units sold.
While it’s not clear how consumers will use drones, they’ve definitely caught people’s attention, said Ben Arnold, an industry analyst for NPD.
“People are interested in the product,” Arnold said. “They want the experience of what it’s like to fly a drone.”
The kit’s circuit board is compatible with Arduino, a programmable microcontroller popular with the maker crowd. The drone’s firmware – the software stored on its chip that controls flight – is posted on GitHub for anyone to view, download and tweak.
Although Flybrix’s drones won’t have a camera – unlike many competitors – their circuit boards have open ports into which users can plug Arduino-compatible sensors. Advanced users can also connect to the drone’s circuit board and review flight data.
And because the drones are made from Lego bricks, users can experiment with different designs and configurations — and easily rebuild their drones when they crash.
“It checks all the boxes for STEM education,” said Holly Kasun, Flybrix’s co-founder and chief operating officer.
It’s unclear how the Lego company will respond to Flybrix’s kits. Company representatives did not respond to a call or email seeking comment. Kasun said Flybrix, which has all of four employees, has tried to be careful to make clear that while its kits include Lego pieces, they aren’t being produced by Lego – and Flybrix isn’t affiliated with the giant toy company.
Even if Lego doesn’t object, Flybrix could face other challenges, particularly from competitors. Consumers can find basic drones, which are little more than four-rotor flying vehicles, for as little as $15 at Toys R Us or Walmart. Meanwhile, Parrot, one of the pioneers in the market, has a line of consumer drones available for between $100 and $150.
But pitching the kits to the maker crowd is a good way to stand out from the pack, analysts said. While there have been similar low-cost, do-it-yourself robot kits, there hasn’t been much like Flybrix in the drone market, said Tom Morrod, an analyst at IHS.
“They offer a great way to experiment with new technology,” Morrod said.