I won’t lie: watching the first few creaky movements from this bag of bolts at switch-on, I felt an unexpected surge of pride. After all those years, it was nice to know that I was still up to the challenge. I could, more to the point, call on impressive reserves of skill, patience and sheer bloody-mindedness when confronted with a big box bearing the legend: “NOT RECOMMENDED FOR CHILDREN UNDER 10 YEARS OF AGE.”
Okay, in my case let’s say I went heavy on the bloody-mindedness; skill and patience, not so much. Three days of finger-numbing, eye-straining, back-breaking labour it took. Funnily enough, I don’t begrudge the time: concentrating on Meccanoid over the 2015 Festive Season meant I could avoid being exposed to TV coverage of the Slaughter of Kingsmead, laughably described as a cricket match between South Africa and England.
Meccanoid is aimed at young makers aged up to their mid-teens. Building it really is, er, child’s play, provided that you don’t rush things and carefully study the sometimes ambiguous constructional diagrams. The last time I had any involvement with Meccano, it came in sets of green and red enamelled metal girders, brass bolts, nuts and pulley wheels used to create impressive feats of miniature engineering. Now, it’s the 21st century, so I suppose Meccano is entitled to be polycarbonate, robotic and project-focused, but I must admit to a brief curl of the lip. Still, like the original, it’s up to your imagination to decide what you can create. (The new components, by the way, are compatible with the originals.)
To put Meccanoid together, two tools are supplied: a screwdriver that’s actually a hex head driver and a fiddly spanner that didn’t see much use because my fingers seemed to work better. There are, according to the box, 1 188 parts to this kit. By the time I got down to the last few nuts I realised that this had been reduced to 1 187, possibly in the process of recording two younger constructors on video earlier. Weirdly, there were a few other bits left over, one of which I repurposed. This may or may not have anything to with the niggling right arm servo, which disconnects and reconnects intermittently. Here’s the thing: this is accompanied by a violent arm twirl, klapping you in the face as you bend forward to check – and a cheeky “That’s not where that goes!” retort. Makes me wonder if it isn’t all an elaborate Meccahoax.
The rest of the time, Meccanoid makes a great conversation piece – even a conversationalist of sorts. Thanks to its Mecca Brain, dual drive wheels and eight servo motors, Meccanoid’s party tricks range from smartass repartee to wandering around on rubber wheels, dancing a passable tango to its own internal music and telling jokes so lame they need a wheelchair. It can learn new tricks, too: using Learned Intelligent Movement (LIM) mode it can replicate a sequence that you program by moving its limbs. By downloading the Mecca-noid app you unlock additional programming options, including motion capture. There’s also a Drone mode in which much of the automation is deactivated and you get to adjust and control individual servo motors. This is, after all, an actual robot. And it’s not a toy – it’s Meccano.
Just the facts:
Memory: 64 MB flash with updatable firmware
Connectivity : Bluetooth
Battery: 1 800 mAh Ni-MH, rechargeable
Motor drives: 6 A
Servo motors: 8, with bidirectional communication
Price: R4 500
This article was originally published in the March 2016 issue of Popular Mechanics magazine.