By Heather Kelly, CNN
For a tiny bug-shaped robot made of cardboard and plastic, Dash is surprisingly advanced.
The new $65 DIY programmable robot is built for tinkering. It comes with a gyroscope, visible light and infrared sensors, and an iOS app for controlling it over Bluetooth 4. The Arduino-compatible bots also have LED lights and additional ports for expanding and hacking the Dash.
You can program in your own behaviors, making the robots move in patterns or follow walls. They can operate as a swarm and cooperate, or set off on individual tasks. Add in touch sensors and turn two peace-loving Dash robots into battlebots that fight each other and keep score on their multi-colored LEDs.
"Our goal is to get a robot into everyone's hands because we think they're great educational tools," said Nick Kohut, one of the founders of Dash Robotics.
Conveniently, Dash will fit right into in the palms of those hands. It has six legs, weighs about half an ounce, and its killer feature is being able to move quickly over various kinds of terrain. It can cover five to six feet a second and is able to cross sand, concrete and other surfaces.
Dash was born in a U.C. Berkeley lab, the brainchild of four mechanical and electrical engineers working on their PhDs. They developed the small robots for research purposes using funding from the National Science Foundation and the U.S. military.
Available in yellow, orange, blue and black, Dash looks like a square, colorful cockroach. But the design and movements draw inspiration from all over the animal kingdom, including lizards. The team worked closely with biologists at Berkeley to imitate the way animals' legs work when running in nature.
The early prototypes were practical, hard-working and unexpectedly cute. People, especially kids, loved them and asked if they could buy one to take home. The four founders decided to team up with a local startup accelerator called The Foundry and turn the little robots into a little business.
The robots will ship as flat cardboard. It takes about and hour to pop out the parts, fold them together and dab on a bit of Elmers' glue.
For now the company is selling them as toys -- inexpensive starter robots that kids can use to learn about engineering and technology. Kohut thinks a hands on, programmable gadget is a great alternative to sitting in front of a computer screen learning how to code.
However, the robots aren't just toys. They have real world potential as well.
"We think there are a lot of applications in the future for this type of technology because we're building robots that are lightweight, nearly all-terrain and inexpensive," said Kohut.
In an earthquake, for example, a small army of the robots outfitted with CO2 sensors could be dropped into rubble to search for survivors without endangering their lives. They could be programmed to cover an area in a pattern or be controlled manually through an app. Because of their light weight, Dashes can drop in from different heights without breaking.
They could also be helpful in agriculture. Dashes could fan out and measure local conditions on a farm like humidity or soil pH without trampling plants.
There are similar technology tools used in the field now, but many, like unmanned aerial vehicles, are costly.
"When you're sending out a thousand inexpensive robots instead of one really expensive robot, it's cheaper to replace," said Kohut.
Dash Robotics is launching a crowdsourcing campaign for a beta run of the robots. The first thousand people to sign up will receive a prototype of the Dash. The company hopes to start shipping a final version early next year.