Today, the UPS man delivered my Vexplorer! (You gotta love the sound of that brown truck. Its distinct sound lets you know your package is almost here.) Although I have not had the opportunity to completely utilize this new set, here are my first thoughts:
The Vexplorer is very well packaged - UPS stated it was 12 lbs, but my postal scale said 8 lbs, maybe the outer brown box made up the difference? All parts are well sealed in separate compartments within the stryofoam tray.
This set is definately aimed at an audience with little robotic experience - which is not a bad thing. Some sections of the main robot (the one with the claw and camera) are already assembled - stating to allow the user to assemble and get going in about an hour. The claw, arm assembly, and both wheel assemblies (3 wheels, 2 motors, gears, axels, and supporting structure) are the pre-assembled portions.
Assembly was not entirely enjoyable. Now, I consider myself only an intermediate robot-builder, so those of you who are experts may have an easier time. In an effort to pre-assemble the robot for you, it appears that some areas of the overall assembly were made unnecessarily more difficult. At certain points; a beam of the arm assembly, a motor, etc were quite simply in the way of building another section. Since the arm assembly was shipped with the arm in a raised position (rather than in a horizontal position as in the instructions), it was difficult to attach the camera to the arm. I had to jump ahead, attach the battery pack, temporarily wire the receiver (microcontroller) module, and use the remote to lower the arm to properly attach the camera. In many instances, the pictures in the instructions were not as clear as they should be (printed too darkly), requiring me to look ahead to find an diagram later to figure out what VexLabs wanted me to do.
The instructions provide 2 options for attaching the antenna: wire tie to the structure (as shown in the instructions) or by using an antenna holder similar to the one in the Vex Starter Kit. However, unless I missed it, there is nothing showing the antenna holder and its use. If you have no prior experience with Vex sets, you may be confused. I knew what this piece was from my Starter Kit days.
Vexplorer comes with the standard Vex wrench and 2 different Allen wrenches - one of which was not needed in this construction. The instructions state that you should use the open-ended wrench to hold the nuts properly when tightening the hex screws. I found this impossible, but rather needed to hold the nut at awkward angles with a small pair of pliers. Perhaps the experts here would have no problem.
I had to sort of rig the battery pack and receiver module, as I did not find them to fit exactly as the instructions stated. The preassembled parts were in the way of later sub-assemblies, as stated above.
The wires from the motors and camera have reversible plugs - so they can be installed in either direction to change the desired motor direction. There is a nice chart stating which wires get plugged into which slot - except for the wire from the camera. It is hinted at on the following page that the camera utilizes the auxiliary port on the receiver is used - but not directly stated. For a newbie as this product is to be targeted, perhaps it should be.
The Vexplorer receiver is about 1/2 to 1/3 the size of the Starter Kit microcontroller, and is not programmable - which makes sense for a kit designed for this type of target audience.
The motors are not compatible with the Starter Kit, using 2-wires. Most other parts are interchangeable with the standard Vex sets. The gears and metal parts appear to be made of the same material as the standard Vex sets, just a different color. The wheels appear to be different from anything Vex released previously, but I have not verified this.
Like the traditional Vex sets, Vexplorer uses a lot of batteries: 6 AA onboard the bot, 4 AA in the camera receiver, and a 9V in the remote. There is a plug on the camera receiver for a power pack (not provided). I am not sure if rechargable AA’s can be used or if a battery pack will be later available from VexLabs.
I wish the instruction book included assembly instructions for the portions that came pre-assembled. A newbie may want to disassemble them for another project and want to re-assemble the original robot later. Perhaps VexLabs will release this later. Some may be afraid to disassemble the pre-assembled sections for fear of forgetting how they originally were put together.
I would also have hoped VexLabs would included assembly instructions for more than 1 type of robot. Although there are completed “idea robots” shown at the end, a robot newbie may be discouraged that they only have 1 set of instructions to follow. True, the point is to give the user a little to start with and then let you experiment on your own - but for this targetted audience they may need/want more (?) I am not sure, this is open to a good discussion.
Once assembled and wired, the fun continues! The remote control is very intuitive and the bot more around with good speed. I had to reverse one of my wires, as when I put all the plugs in the same direction, the remote could not be used as I intended - an easy fix. Arm and claw have both strength and dexterity - able to lift a fair amount of weight, yet grasp small objects. The claw is well-designed and well-shaped with soft rubber grips to really hang on to something. I need to further test its complete ability yet.
The camera image quality was better than expected. Its never going to compete with the professionals - but the image is very nice and provides a good picture as expected for this set. Simply connect the camera receiver to the yellow and white RCA ports of your TV (cable provided), make sure the camera and camera receiver are on the same one of four channels, and power everything on! Easy! The image appears on your TV within a few seconds. You do have to make sure you are in a very-well lit room for the best picture. You can connect this to a DVD recorder and record your adventures. The camera’s built in microphone is of a fine quality - but sensitive - it does pick up all of the robot motor sounds. This is not a problem, just something to keep in mind. I thought it was cool that the camera is positioned just right so you can see the claw open and close on the TV - which helps you to position the claw as you watch.
The signal from the camera to the camera receiver has good range, as well. I sat in my basement watching the TV and remotely piloted the robot throughout my upstairs with only very minimal reduction of signal in only a few certain areas. I have to test the range further. The camera operates at 2.4 GHz, so you may experience interference from certain cordless phones, wifi, etc. The robot remote operates at 27 MHz.
Vexplorer also comes with the “SolidWorks Student Design Kit” software in DVD format, good for 150 days or until November 30, 2008 - whichever comes first. I have not had an opportunity to try the software yet.
The Vexplorer is a lot of fun and I can’t wait to really put it through its paces. I am a little concerned the assembly may turn off some of those who are newer to robot building, but perhaps it was just me. This was definately a worthwhile purchase, and I look forward to using it more.
Another fine product!
P.S. Anyone else get a Vexplorer yet? What are your thoughts? Do you agree or disagree with anything I stated here? I’m interested what others think.