Practical Robots for the Home

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With all the recent advances in robotics, one wonders when practical robots will be available for home use, with price and performance that withstands the astute judgment of that discriminating devil’s advocate – the housewife. It’s a significant technical challenge for automation engineers.

Most techies are “early adopters” – they like to buy gadgets when they are just introduced, to analyze them, take them apart and just play with them as new toys. It stimulates new ideas.

My quest for home robots

I’ve always been fascinated with robots and was one of those who bought the Heathkit HERO robot-kit some 25 years ago. I programmed it in machine language to guard my office at home (with its simple infra-red movement sensors). When my kids approached, it would say in a commanding robot voice, “You’re not supposed to be here!”

HERO had another useful application. When I was not home and my wife approached, it intoned with soft robot tones, “I love you.” When that happened at random, a couple of times, she was a little unnerved and unplugged it; but it was battery operated and simply kept repeating its claims of affection. A little frightened, she called me frantically at work, “Hey! What am I supposed to do with this thing? How do I make it shut up?” Of course, she quickly learned to push the reset button – just as the kids had done.

Well, after a while, I donated HERO to a local school, to get a tax deduction. Over the years I still continued to buy other robots. But they turned out to be toys – mostly.

This past Christmas, after hesitating for a while, I finally decided to buy a robot to do some real work at home. I am now the proud owner of Roomba, the home vacuum cleaning robot manufactured by the company iRobot.

I've got to tell you – my wife is still cynical about my "buying toys". She knows I “play” with them for a while, and then allow them to gather dust till they’re moved to the attic for storage. I don't usually hesitate too long, but I didn't want my wife to crow, "I told you so!" on this new robot. So I waited with unusual patience while I studied the possibilities.

FABS – features, advantages & benefits

The Roomba website has a fairly detailed description of Roomba, with lots of good diagrams and pictures, and enough technical details to satisfy the most discerning geek. Amazon.com has another wonderful feature – reviews from customers who have already used the product. I found 45 reviews, mostly very positive, but with a few not-too-happy comments (which add credibility, I suppose).

Roomba is round, about 13inches diameter by 4 inches high, with a lot of interesting and convenient features. Simply press the "clean" button and it will vacuum the whole floor, adjusting automatically to any floor surface including wood, tile linoleum, and low-to-medium pile carpet – though not shag carpet.

The robot’s artificial intelligence is expected to determine the room size and adjust run time to ensure that it cleans the entire floor. Integrated sensors detect dirt and are supposed to increase the focus and intensity of cleaning in dirty areas. When it comes to furniture and walls, it bumps gently (not hard enough to damage anything) and backs up, turns a little and tries again. It has a stasis sensor which detects when it's stuck and it employs pre-programmed escape routines to free itself.

Roomba has a three-stage cleaning system, with counter-rotating brushes that scoop large debris into its dustbin, plus a vacuum to pick up fine particles, dirt, and pet hair. iRobot, the manufacturer, claims that it can get floors cleaner than conventional upright vacuums. It certainly is able to clean where others cannot – under beds, couches and other furniture. Its edge-cleaning spinning side-brush, combined with wall-following technology, removes dirt and debris from the base of walls, from corners, and other hard-to-reach places.

The power system consists of a fast-charging battery, a three-hour charger, and a power source which supercharges the robot for up to 120 minutes of continuous cleaning. When the battery is low, or it has completed a cleaning cycle, the vacuum returns automatically to its charging Home Base so that it will be ready for the next cleaning session.

Cleaning modes include MAX mode, which sets the unit to clean multiple rooms in one cleaning cycle, or for 120 minutes of intense cleaning in a given room. Spot mode sets the unit to clean quickly and intensely in a 3-foot diameter. Replaceable air filters prevent dust and dirt from escaping back into the air, and removable-by-hand brushes allow for quick, routine maintenance.

Real-world test program

Heck, after a lot of study and analysis-paralysis, I finally bought one – $249.00 from Amazon.com, same price from anyone else. There are other cheaper models, but I bought the upgraded “Roomba Model 4210 Discovery Robot Floorvac.”

Well, whaddyaknow – it not only worked well, but even my wife was delighted! It's easy to use. To start, I simply pressed the "clean" button and Roomba vacuumed the carpeted floor in my home office. My wife was worried about how it could do corners – its edge-cleaning spinning side brush removes dirt from the base of walls, from corners, and hard-to-reach places. She was surprised.

We closed the doors to my office and let it run for a while, watching to see if it picked up little things the QC inspector had purposely scattered around – it did. And when it was finished, it purred back to its corner to its charging dock, to re-charge. My wife thought this was "sweet".

We moved it to our patio-room, which is mostly tiles, with a rug in the middle. It did well, climbing on the rug, and sliding off on to the tiled floor. It did the bedroom next, going under the bed (where one doesn't usually bother). We then tried the landing upstairs. Its infrared "cliff sensors" are supposed to prevent it from falling off an edge; but I found that it simply stops, and I wanted it to continue working without supervision. So instead, I used the "artificial wall" – a little battery-operated box (two of these came with the Roomba kit) which turns on an invisible beam of light that acts like a barrier.

We have 2 guest-rooms, with a corridor in between – like a T-junction. I put it in the corridor and closed the door, wondering whether it would find its way to both rooms. We went out for dinner. When we returned, it had cleaned both rooms and the corridor, and was happily re-charging itself. Sweet....

After all this vacuuming, we wondered how much dirt it had collected. My wife snapped open the dirt-cover without any instructions (she is suspicious of tech-manuals) which she did with remarkable ease. It clicked open, and she dumped the stuff away quite easily. She was impressed.

The Roomba kit includes its battery, a charger that plugs into the wall, a remote-clicker (if you prefer to order it around) and two artificial-wall boxes. Nice clean box, easy to unpack and get started.

Satisfied customer

Well, we’ve had Roomba for about 3 months now, and are pleased with it. We realize that if we want to do some quick vacuuming, we can’t expect it rush around quickly like a human, covering every part of the room just once. It takes its own time, wandering around and covering some already-clean spots several times. What we usually do is to get it started on a room, or an area, when we’re going out for a while. When we come back, Roomba’s done, happily purring away in its charger, ready for its next mission.

Hey! I'm happy that I finally got a robot to do some useful work at home. But, you know what I'm surprised about? My wife likes Roomba! She has now put me in charge of regular vacuuming at home, and has given our regular vacuum cleaner to our daughter.

Hey, but hang on a minute – who's going to vacuum the stairs...?

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Jim Pinto is an industry analyst and commentator, writer, technology entrepreneur, investor and futurist. You can email him at: [email protected]. Or look at his poems, prognostications and predictions on his website: http://www.JimPinto.com . Read extracts from his new book, “Automation Unplugged” at: http://www.jimpinto.com/writings/unplugged.html