Marty the robot is setting children’s imaginations and STEM skills alight. Absolutely Education meets the inventive mind behind an educational toy that even does disco

Marty is a robot you’ll be hearing a lot more about. First developed in 2016 as an educational technology (edtech) toy, a new v2 incarnation starts shipping this spring capable of doing a whole lot more – including copying human movements and disco dancing.

While the dad dance moves are reassuringly old school, there’s nothing archaic about the technology and inventiveness that has gone into creating an accessible, affordable and challenging toy designed to inspire children aged from 8 to 18+ to get coding. 

The man behind Marty is Dr Sandy (Alexander) Enoch. He developed the idea after he was frustrated in his search for a robot birthday present to get his young niece interested in STEM. As a then robotics PhD student at Edinburgh University, he knew better than most what made a good bot – and a challenging toy – and discovered that there wasn’t anything he wanted to gift to a member of his family. 

“I was really disappointed at what was available,” he says. “I wanted something that would get kids engaged and hands on, as a gateway into coding and wider STEM subjects. Everything I saw was either novelty end or smart-tech and expensive. There wasn’t an educational product suitable for young users.” Still continuing his Robotics PhD (a special interest was walking robots with variable stiffness), Enoch began working on a very different type of bot as a side project. 


He garnered a lot of allies along the way – University of Edinburgh was, he says, incredibly supportive, supplying practical help through its student enterprise arm and commercial liaison unit. The Royal Academy of Engineering also got behind the idea, awarding him a grant and access to mentoring from Academy Fellows to help him commercialise the project and bring Marty to market. Other backers and awards came along.

Support for the first Marty came from a crowdfunding campaign – parents, schools and individual teachers bought into the concept, and with individual support from investors in the worlds of business and technology. Marty v1 was road-tested in thousands of schools, warmly greeted by both pupils and teachers. 

While Marty may look like every child’s idea of a robot – and in an interview with The Scotsman, Enoch discussed how he deliberately designed him with character in order to engage young minds – very clever engineering goes into his crowd-pleasing looks. “One of the interesting challenges in robotics is that it is very difficult to make a walking robot,” says Sandy. This means the simple everyday actions most of us would like to see a robot do are incredibly difficult to achieve, especially at a reasonable price point. 

One example of the efficiency of Marty is that he’s engineered to use half the motors you would normally expect, which helps to keep production costs down (and there’s a patent pending for this aspect of the technology). But this motor efficiency isn’t at the expense of action. Standing just over 20cm tall, he can be programmed to do all manner of smart moves. 

The critical factor when it comes to engaging children is that they take control of the coding. While he can be bought pre-built or as a kit, the latter gives individuals and groups the opportunity to get ground-up skills in all manner of key STEM subjects, from engineering to electronics. He’s also customisable using 3D printing for extra parts. and that’s where the fun really starts.

Marty the Marvel

While Marty is suitable for primary school-age, keeping the challenge going is key to ensuring interest is maintained among older age groups. Marty is designed, says Enoch, to be easy to get started with, as children start to absorb basic coding the minute they get him out of the box. But as they develop their skills and explore his capabilities they move on to using more complex languages, such as Python. He’s also compatible with Raspberry Pi computers and you can add a camera. 

Marty v2 – still with an affordable price point – has a whole host of extra features thanks to a second Kickstarter funding round late last year that raised almost £43,000 (the target was £30,000). With v2, there are smart sensors that enable the bot to mimic movements you make, motors that give him grabbing hands, obstacle detection, Bluetooth compatibility, sound capability and – best of all for many fans – an all new ‘Disco Marty’ setting complete with flashing lights. 

With a network of school users across the UK, but also Australia and the US, there are plans afoot to build on the interactive elements available via competitions. Don’t underestimate the power of a challenge, or the allure of the Disco Marty setting when it comes to building next-generation engineers and robotics whizzes. The team at Robotical have found that both really help to encourage children to develop technology skills and have fun.

At a recent competition held among Edinburgh school groups, young people had to accomplish a set of challenges, including taking Marty through an obstacle course and creating a dance routine for a ‘dance-off’ finale. This tested the bot’s capabilities and the children’s coding, problem-solving and teamworking skills, but also their creative choreography. Sandy Enoch – who began his Robotical journey searching for a cool bot present for his niece – is proud that the competition attracted an almost equal gender split of coders. He’s even more proud that the winning team, which aced it with their stunning robot choreography, contained significantly more girls than boys.

Marty v2, shipping from this spring, will retail from around £175 in kit form and £198 assembled

Further reading: How to encourage girls to study STEM