How a Toy Robot Upended the Aerospace Industry

One Friday, in the Wired offices, these two boxes arrive. We would always get products for review and these two boxes … one was the brand new Lego Mindstorms NXT kit 2006, and the other one was a radio-controlled model airplane. I thought, “Best weekend ever, right? I’ll take these, hands off, I’ll take these, and I’ll review these.” I thought, Saturday, we’re going to build a robot, Lego robot with my kids, kids love Lego. I thought, “Robots would be cool” and Sunday we’d fly a plane. You can’t go wrong there.

So on Saturday, we dutifully got the kids there, they were so excited about it; they do love Lego. The instructions were to build a Tribot, a three-wheeled Lego robot and we took all morning to build it and then you got to program it. You drag little icons around and code flow and all that stuff. We were done around lunchtime, put it on the floor and pressed go.

This is what it did: it moved forward until it sees a wall and then it backs up. And the kids were like, “You’ve got to be kidding me. We’ve seen Transformers, we know what robots are supposed to do… and where are the lasers, why isn’t it walking? I thought it’d bring me my orange juice.”

They were super unimpressed, because it turns out it’s really hard to compete with Hollywood on robots. It’s hard to compete with computer graphics. Real robotics is hard. Whereas we’ve been set up to believe that robots can do more than it really can, so that was a bust.

And then on Sunday we went to the park to fly the plane and I flew it straight into a tree, and that was a bust as well.

I was thinking about how it could have gone better. I thought, “Well, the problem is we couldn’t build anything really cool with Lego, and the problem is it can’t fly.” What if we could build a Lego thing that will fly the plane? I bet the Lego could have flown the plane better than I could have and that would be cooler than this three-wheeled thing that bounces off walls.

I was thinking about the stuff that came in the box. There was this little plastic gyro sensors and accelerometers called tilt sensors and a compass, magnetometer sensor and Bluetooth link that you can put a GPS on. I was like, “You could really build an autopilot.”

I didn’t really know what an autopilot was but it just seemed to me that this had all the necessary elements. So I went for a run, I thought a little bit more about it, I came home, sort of Googled autopilots and understood a little bit of the basics of it.

Then I grabbed the kids together and we sat at the dining room table and we built a Lego autopilot and it worked. Kind of. It could kind of barely fly the plane.

Anyways, it turned out that it was the first Lego unmanned aerial vehicle; it’s now in the Lego museum in Bellund, Denmark. Very proud of that. The kids they have lost interest, of course and I went right down the rabbit hole.

If I can build a Lego autopilot on the dining table with my children and create a drone controlled by toys, something’s changed in this world. There’s a glitch in the matrix and that really was interesting to me. Why is that possible?

While I was Googling on autopilot, I discovered that what we created was basically classified as a cruise missile controller. Any kind of electronic system that can lead to autonomous flight is classified as a cruise missile controller and it has, as a result, it was covered by export patrol regulations. By putting on the Internet, we actually need to ascertain that anybody who built one of these had it under 24-hour closed circuit control… that there was a log in, log out book! I mean, we’re talking about Lego.

Technically, we actually got a ruling from a lawyer, we’d weaponized Lego that day on our dining table.

If me and my children can weaponize Lego, and basically create a cruise missile controller with toys, then something in this world has changed in a really interesting way.