Finally, a robot that people want!

People have been predicting that robots would take over since maybe the 19th century. In the eighties, it seemed like the time of robots was really close.. Computers were small enough to actually fit inside of a robot, we could make robot arms. People started seriously thinking about robots doing all of our housework, like in the Jetsons.

Of course, they thought of this in the same hushed terms as they thought of virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and other such pie-in-the-sky items (Speaking of pie, my pumpkin pie rocks. I froze some after Thanksgiving and have been enjoying it lately) and nobody’s really made anything too interesting that’s robotic to do drudge work that really should be done by machine. I mean, we’ve been able to wash dishes and clothes by machine for years and years, but shouldn’t technology get us something else?

Lately, I heard about the Roomba, a $200US robot which is designed for the sole purpose of cleaning the floor. It interested me because it had the potential to work out in the market. It’s inexpensive enough so that I could actually justify spending money on it. According to other Roomba owners, it actually works. It does something that people really don’t want to do but, at the same time, something that can be automated without requiring lots of intelligence.

So my wife and I asked my parents to get us a Roomba for Christmas this year.

The Roomba is a miracle of both robotic and industrial design. It needs to be able to get by with far less power than your average stand-up vacuum, so they do most of the work with a sweeper instead of a vacuum motor. It needs to be able to clean a room even if there’s barriers, throw rugs (which may slide around), without causing excessive damage, etc. And it has to look like something that you’d want to have in your house. It isn’t incredibly cute, but it is cute enough that I decided that it was a him, not an it, although not quite cute enough to merit a proper name. The shape is a little suggestive of a crab without limbs, or perhaps a shorn tribble.

He’s quite thorough. Every time you think that he’s going to miss something, a few minutes later he will hit that spot. He has a random-walk feel to his pattern. He doesn’t look like he’s trying to solve a maze, he’s just walking around trying to make sure that everything has been swept up at least a few times. He bumps into walls a lot, trying to get every last edge-piece clean with his little rotating edge-brush, which, incidentally, is a huge contribution to the cuteness. And he manages to get floors clean. I set him on three different areas of the Casa Wirehead and all were cleaned nicely. After cleaning out his filters, I can say he definitely is picking up the dust.

To use a Roomba, you just move everything that should be cleaned out of the area (He can clean underneath stuff if he’s got enough room), set up any virtual walls that are required to keep the area reasonable (He’s only got so much battery power), and then set him loose. He’s got a removable battery, so you can replace it when it’s worn out or keep several charged batteries around. He’ll go under stuff that you wouldn’t ordinarily be able to reach with a normal vacuum, like underneath the bed.

Long term reliability is up in the air. I just started using him today, so we’ll see how long he lasts long-term. I intend to use him frequently to clean stuff simply because all you need to do is just let him work.