The Flybrix team didn’t set out to build an adorable DIY mini-drone out of Lego bricks. But as any road-tripper can tell you, sometimes the journey turns out to be more fun than the destination.
Amir Hirsch has a masters from MIT. Robb Walters has a PhD from Cal Tech. And Holly Kasun has a marketing background that spans from Nike to Nokia. Together, they set out to make small drones smarter, not STEM toys.
“What we were doing originally is going after autonomous flight for microdrones, using computer vision and some other technical milestones,” says Kasun. “While we were developing our product, we used Lego bricks to rapidly prototype our early drone designs.”
The team soon realized that what started as R&D on a budget was also, conveniently enough, an easy and engaging way to learn about how drones work. They’re still working on autonomous microdrone flight, but in the meantime are packaging up all the elements needed to build your own home drones.
Flybrix come as either a $150 basic kit and $190 deluxe kit–the price will jump after a “limited time”–and come with enough Lego bricks and introductory electronics to let you build fully functional quadcopter, octocopter, or hexacopter frames. (The deluxe kit includes an RC controller, but you can still control the basic set’s flights with an associated app.) Each kit comes with sets of instructions that are basic enough for complete novices; Kasun says it should only take about 15 minutes from the time you open the box to having your first quadcopter in the air.
Following instructions, though, isn’t necessarily the point.
“What we see with this type of product is that it checks all the boxes of STEM education. It just provides so many avenues for learning,” says Kasun, who adds that the included instruction sets for three types of drones give Flybrix customers a solid foundation from which to pursue their own designs. These are Lego bricks, after all; you can do what you want with them.
“The kits are really robust,” says Kasun. “We’ve opened up all of the sensors and the mechanisms that make drones fly and work to be able to access those.” Each kit includes a magnetometer, barometer, accelerometer, and the ability to add GPS and Wi-Fi if you’re so inclined.
Even the software is open source, letting people customize not just drone hardware but performance as well. Meanwhile, Kasun and her partners hope to incorporate more elements from their original pursuit of autonomous flight in future Flybrix models.
There are two worries that usually attend projects like this, but Flybrix has an answer to them both. First, yes, Lego is aware that these kits use Lego products, and no, it’s not going to shut Flybrix down, at least as long as it calls its produts “DIY drone kits made with Lego bricks,” and not “Lego drones.”
Second is yes, these are real. They work. They’re shipping. Flybrix feels like a quintessential Kickstarter, but Kasun says while they considered crowdfunding, they ultimately didn’t want to fall into the too-common trap of over-promising and never delivering.
“You run into a lot of unknowns, even at the very end of what you think you have nailed, and have a really bad surprise,” says Kasun of technically challenging projects like Flybrix. “We wanted to avoid that at all costs.” The Flybrix site does “Limited Availability,” but that’s just the quantity that they’re ready to ship today.
There are easier ways to get a drone in the air. Cheaper ones, too. But the confluence of Lego and flight? That’s pretty brickin’ cool.