For years now, whenever Colin Angle told somebody that he’s the CEO of a company that builds robots, he always heard the same joke: “When are you going to build a robot that can clean my floors?” Colin’s riposte was always the same: for ten thousand dollars, they could have their floor-cleaning robot tomorrow. But at that price, few people were interested.Today those jokes are a thing of the past. On September 23rd Angle’s Somerville, MA company, iRobot, took the wraps off its ambitious three-year project to build that most requested robot-the robot that cleans house. Called Roomba, the robot is a little battery-powered vacuum cleaner that scurries around the floor, sweeping up dust and dirt as it travels. And instead of costing thousands, Roomba costs just $199. “That’s why this is an incredibly important robot,” says Angle.
If anything, Angle is being modest. Although Detroit has been using robots to build cars for four decades, Roomba is the first device to bring the labor-saving promise of robotics into the home. While Sony’s Aibo and similar toys proved that consumers want robots, Roomba may be the first that they actually need.
That’s because Roomba isn’t just for show. It does a fabulous job on the daily chore of sweeping or vacuuming. It picks up dust bunnies, dirt tracked in from the street, spilled rice and coffee grounds, loose beads, and most other objects that are smaller than an acorn. It gently avoids furniture, it doesn’t fall down stairs, and it runs up to 90 minutes on a single battery charge-enough time for it to clean two 16- by 20-foot rooms. This machine is not a gimmick: it gets floors clean.
To use the Roomba, you put it on the floor, turn it on, and press the button marked S, M or L (depending on your room size). The robot plays a little tune and starts sweeping the floor in an ever-widening spiral-essentially, the machine sweeps in crop circles. When it bumps into something, it backs up, turns, and starts off in a new direction. Periodically Roomba alternates this behavior with a wall-and-furniture-hugging algorithm and straight lines across the fall. It will also randomly turn and drive as far as it can until it hits something.
Computer scientists call the Roomba’s behavior a “random walk.” The big advantage of this approach is that the Roomba doesn’t need to map out your living room and then keep track of where it’s been. Roomba’s walk isn’t guaranteed to cover an entire floor, but in practice it does a very good job. The S, M and L buttons adjust the parameters of the walk and determine how long the machine runs before it decides that it is finished.
Being a robot, Roomba doesn’t think like a human being, and it doesn’t clean like one either. I turned it on in my bedroom and the first thing it did was drive underneath the bed, sweeping up an inch of dust that my professional housecleaner had somehow forgotten for more than six months. On the other hand, it’s easy for Roomba to get tangled in power cords, long shoelaces, or even socks. My loaner Roomba sucked up a headband that my daughter had left underneath her bed and stopped working until I turned the machine over and manually extracted the offending garment.
“It’s a hard worker,” says Angle. “You start off thinking that it is very cool, and you let it run. After a few minutes you get tired of watching it and go off and do whatever else you want to do. You can think of it as a helper and you feel good about it.”