When Pathfinder touched down on Mars and began exploring the red planet, it was a milestone in human history. But assembling a Pathfinder robot in your living room will be a milestone in family history.
The Lego Exploration Mars builder kit is basically an expansion pack for the Robotics Invention System, version 1.5. That means you have the huge box of parts and motors that come with the main robotics kit and a smaller box that enables you to construct interesting vehicles whose big brothers have explored Mars, such as Pathfinder and Carl Sagan station.
Looking at all the pieces is fairly daunting at first. As I have in previous reviews of this nature, I enlisted Lego building expert Chris Richard to help construct the vehicles. I probably could have done it myself, but the Exploration Mars set is much more complex than the previous Mindstorm titles we have seen in the lab. Parental help will certainly be required for most children under the age of 12. This can be a great opportunity for quality time with the kids, as you work together to bring the robots to life.
It is interesting to note that the processor on the Lego version of the Pathfinder is actually a lot more powerful than the CPU that was put on the real Pathfinder. Now I doubt that the Lego version could survive in ultra freezing temperatures for long, but at least the home version can run multiple programs quickly.
There are several sensors that come with the robot that can be attached to the main hull to make things interesting. The coolest one by far is the light sensor, with looks like a regular Lego brick but has a laser-like light on one end. It actually can not only be used as a light sensor, but can also detect when objects are in front of the Pathfinder. Depending on what program you select you can have the unit turn away from obstacles or simply stop before hitting something and wait for the object to move before continuing.
The sensor does not work in dim light or in the absence of light, since it apparently perceives darkness as a solid object that it can’t pass through. You can use this to your advantage by pointing the sensor downward and have the device run along a little track, so long as the sides of the track are black. The kit comes with a large paper track for this purpose. If you want, you can power the sensor by attaching it to the main hull but tell the program to ignore any sensor data. That way you can have the cool-laser-look as the Pathfinder chugs its way through a dark room.
There is another set of sensors that are interesting and that is the bump sensors. Like the old toy cars of yesteryear, they trigger an event when the car touches another object, like a wall. If built correctly, you can have the Pathfinder stop when it touches an object and go back the other direction. It’s not nearly as cool as the light sensor, but still pretty interesting.
One thing to note is that you do not actually need a computer to enjoy the Mindstorms product. It comes with a CD-ROM that enhances the overall experience, but you can build and play with the robots without ever going to your computer for help.
The other thing that is worth noting is that the Mindstorms products are not cheap. Ten years ago this type of robotic technology would have been cutting edge and probably not seen outside of a high-tech college or even a military base. That said, to get the entire setup you will need to spend over $100, which is more than some families can afford. If you are not sure your kids will play with it for a long time, you might try a less expensive toy.
The Lego Exploration Mars kit earns four out of five GiN Gems for providing a fun activity that does not even require a computer. The kit is much more advanced than the Star Wars Mindstorm series, although less technically inclined children will probably get frustrated with the complexity. That is where a good parent will step in to share the experience, which will make or break the toy as far as personal satisfaction goes.