Three Projects That Make LEGO Toys Into High-Tech Tools

LEGOs aren't just for kids. They're also a maker's best friend.

Book Digitizer
Book Digitizer Via Dexter Industries © 2014 BrickPi — All Rights Reserved

Hand a kid some LEGOs, and you’ll get anything from a sword to a starship. The same adaptability that makes the bricks amazing playthings also endears them to makers, who use the simple toys to create complex machines—at a fraction of their usual cost.

Braille Printer

Braille Printer Courtesy Micro/Nanoscale Engineering Laboratory, directed by Dr. Keunhan (Kay) Park, of the Department of Mechanical, Industrial and Systems Engineering at the University of Rhode Island

Twelve-year-old Shubham Banerjee first heard of braille when his family received a mailer raising money for the blind. He then researched braille printers online and learned they cost $1,800 or more. Banerjee thought he could build a cheaper version out of his favorite toy, so he bought a LEGO robotics kit and created the Braigo for only $355. A thumbtack on the Braigo’s print head punches braille letters on a roll of paper. “It’s very easy,” Banerjee says. “Even my eight-year-old sister can use it.”

Book Digitizer

A year ago, chemical engineer John Cole co-developed a circuit board that turns a Raspberry Pi minicomputer into a robot. Inspired by Google’s goal to scan all the books in the world, Cole paired his device with a LEGO Mindstorms EV3 set and adapted it to quickly digitize printed text. Cole’s BrickPi Bookreader has a wheel and robotic arm to turn each page, and a camera to snap pictures. Then character-recognition software converts the photos into a digital copy of the book.

Atomic Force Microscope

Atomic Force Microscope
Atomic Force Microscope Photograph by Neil Banerjee

To scrutinize objects at the nanoscale, scientists use an atomic force microscope (AFM). But the instruments can cost $100,000 a pop. Last year, an international group of students built a roughly $250 prototype from LEGOs, hacked electronics, and 3-D–printed parts. Like a regular AFM, the LEGO one constructs images by measuring the distance between a sample and a probe on its arm. This summer, students worked to refine the model and bring its price below $100.

_This article originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of _Popular Science.