I want my Tidy-Bot!

Originally published 2004 in Atomic: Maximum Power Computing
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.


I've owned a Roomba for several months now. I highly recommend it.

The Roomba is very much old news for people in the USA, but you still can't buy them locally here in Australia, so it's just possible that some readers of this site may not know what they are.

A Roomba is a robot vacuum cleaner. It's circular, with the area of a large dinner plate. It does a quite respectable job of cleaning smooth floors and carpets, thanks to a combination of modest suction, enthusiastic brushing, and an ingenious control system.

The Roomba is a quite dumb robot, but it's genuinely useful, even for non-nerds who don't appreciate it as a work of industrial art as much as for its functionality. My mum thought the Roomba was just another of my damn fool toys, until she saw how much dust it collected under her bed.

(Yes, I'm aware that dust under the bed is perfectly happy there and need not be removed, since it interferes in no way with the playing of video games or the eating of steaks. For some reason, few mothers seem to be persuaded by this argument.)

Aussies can read all about Roombas at the official site; it's buying one that's the trick. You should be able, like me, to find a new one on eBay for about the US retail price ($US200), including delivery. All you need then is a step-down converter for the charger plugpack, or a replacement 240V unit (Jaycar's MP3029 plugpack turned out to be a perfect drop-in replacement, by the way).

People have been making predictions about household robots since the days when they assumed they'd be controlled by relays (not even valves!). Pretty much all that came of this, for decade after decade, was goofy gadgets that could carry a couple of beer cans from one room to the next. We've got some decent assistive technology devices for disabled people now, but they're not cheap or glamorous. The Roomba's the only ordinary affordable automatic household helper, if you don't count washing machines and bread makers.

The reasons for this disappointing situation are simple enough. Try to design a general purpose household robot and your requirements will rapidly escalate in complexity until you've got blueprints for C-3PO on your desk. Even if you tightly restrict the jobs the robot has to do, the chaotic nature of an ordinary indoor environment makes things very difficult, no matter how much processing power the robot's got.

If you're all gung-ho about artificial intelligence, you'd think a robot vacuum cleaner would need to know the layout of the room it's cleaning. And it would, if you wanted it to cover every piece of floor as few times as possible, avoiding tanglesome rug fringes, then navigate to the door and start on the next room, and trundle back to an empty-and-charge docking station when necessary.

Electrolux's "Trilobite" robo-vac is such a machine, which at least partly explains why even the first version still lists for an inspiring $US1800. It has auto-charge and wall mapping, and the current version no longer needs you to put magnetic strips at the top of your stairways to prevent it from committing suicide down them. It was a bit embarrassing for Electrolux that the original Trilobite had that problem; the $US200 Roomba always had "cliff sensors" to prevent such mishaps.

A Roomba, in contrast, has no clue whatsoever about the layout of the room it's cleaning. It's smarter than a Kreepy Krauly, but not by nearly as much as you'd think. All it's got are bumper switches and infra-red sensors, and two chunky-tyred drive wheels, yet it can deal elegantly with a surprising variety of rooms.

The Roomba does have a vague idea of the size of the room; you tell it that by pressing the S, M or L button on top when you start it cleaning. All that tells the Roomba is how many collision events it should tolerate before it comes to a halt and plays its "I'm done" beeps, though.

And those beeps mean it's time for you to empty the Roomba and, probably, plug it into its charger, by hand. And if your rugs have fringes, you have to tuck them under before you set Roomba loose.

A Roomba will probably cover every piece of a room's floor several times in the course of cleaning it, but not with any particular plan; it just uses a combination of spiralling, edge-following and pseudo-random turning that makes it statistically very difficult for any part of the floor to avoid being cleaned.

This behaviour is also useful for making cats nervous.

Recently, iRobot released four all-new Roombas (though you won't actually be able to buy them for about another month...), including two "Discovery" models. There've been updates to the basic grey Roomba before, but all they added were minor things like intensive cleaning of one piece of floor, and a remote control that you can use whenever, assuming you're able-bodied, you really ought to be getting out your proper vacuum cleaner and doing the job yourself.

The Discoveries, in contrast, have a charging dock into which they're meant to be able to steer themselves to recharge. They're still dumb old Roombas at heart, though, and so they can only find their "Home Base" if they're within eight feet of it. They'll hunt for it if they don't know where it is, but if it's not in the same room, they ain't gonna find it - and if they do find it, they're just going to sit in it, not recharge and then automatically resume cleaning.

I'm still impressed with the iRobot implementation of the docking base feature, though - if the base is in the same room, they do have a fighting chance of finding it, all without the slightest idea of what the room looks like. But the real improved features of the version 2 Roombas are more prosaic - a bigger dust bin and a standard 3 hour charger, and a slightly higher capacity battery, and a not-much-higher price (and the basic, Home-Base-less version 2 Roomba now lists for only $US150). And, possibly, the "Dirt Detection" feature that lets the fancier Roombas more thoroughly clean dirtier areas.

(And maybe they've got some more fun hidden stuff.)

Now, it's been proved that people will pay high prices for fancy home appliances. Witness the popularity of snazzy stainless steel ovens (which don't necessarily work any better than the plain white enamel versions) and Star Trek washer-dryers (which often turn into a maintenance nightmare compared with good old mechanical control washing machines), and, of course, regular non-autonomous Dyson vacuum cleaners (which, surprisingly enough, are actually good, though not necessarily great value).

So it's easy enough to visualise a relatively affordable robo-vac, maybe a Roomba V3, which not only automatically navigates back to its charging cradle when necessary, but which can also dump the contents of its "particle bin" while it's there (as the $US1500 Kärcher RC 3000 RoboCleaner already does). Other self-cleaning functions will be hard to implement without substantially pushing up the price of the device, but if it's durable enough, a $US1000 self-cleaning no-maintenance Roomba could still be a big seller.

There are limits, though. If your home's a clutter bomb-site, you'll have to tidy before you can let a Roomba go. It's not good at navigating mazes, and will choke on various small and stringy things. If it'd get stuck in the mouth of a regular vacuum cleaner, it'll certainly stymie a Roomba. You've got to pick that stuff up yourself.

Clearly, this is unacceptable.

So what I'd like to see is a separate Tidy-Bot, with little more navigation capability than the Roomba, but with target-identification and manipulation abilities that enable it to pick things up and gently move them around, stacking things on top of other things or just depositing them in baskets according to type. When it meets something it can't recognise, it could take a picture of it and page you, letting you use your smartphone or Web browser to tell the Tidy-Bot what the thing is and where it should go.

A robot that wandered around picking things up, turning them over and over, figuring out what size and shape they were, filing things that it knows what they are in appropriate places (The White Clothes Bin, The Coloured Clothes Bin, The Plate Pile...) would be a fine companion to a Roomba for the person with better things to do than pick up after themselves.

The programming and hardware requirements for this task aren't trivial, of course. Maybe a picker-upper is too much to ask, for now; maybe a simple shover would do, provided it could be prevented from leaving skid marks on the carpet all around the lounge. Even that would still present problems if you're in the habit of leaving half-empty cups of coffee on the floor. But such details need not detain us now.

The idea here is the application of the recent pragmatic trend towards smaller-dumber-cheaper robots to household-robot functions. Each function can be broken out into a separate machine. This not only allows the machines to be smaller and cheaper, but also makes it possible to buy as much or as little home automation as you want, or can afford.

If you're a person who doesn't tend to leave crap all over the floor, great - you don't need a picker-upper! If you just don't care whether your windows are clean or not, no problem - no sucker-footed glass-scrub-bot for you!

I think I speak for many of my fellow nerds, however, when I say that I'd like the complete boxed set, please.

Other options

The robo-vac market is expanding.

Dyson are threatening to release a smart machine like the Trilobite, which may cost even more. The Friendly Robotics Friendly Vac is competing in this market segment, too; it costs a mere $US1500.

And then there's the Roomba clone that Jaycar are selling here in Australia these days. Unfortunately, that looks like the gadget sold in the States as the Zoombot, and also as the Intelli-Vac. In that latter guise it's sold by Lentek, which is one of those as-seen-on-TV direct marketing companies and doesn't seem to be too bothered about selling things that definitely do not work. Apparently the Intelli-Vac is at least slightly functional, but I wouldn't expect to be able to find spare parts.

Pointless gadget specialists Sharper Image have a more impressive contender in their e Vac, which isn't much more expensive than the current top-end Roombas. Opinions differ concerning its usefulness, but it looks like a real option.

LG Electronics, the geniuses behind the Internet Refrigerator, also make the, ah, distinctively styled RoboKing V-3000, another expensive room-mapper (with Internet control, 'cos that's really useful) that doesn't seem to have made it out of Korea yet. And Samsung have the VC-RP30W, ah, Crubo, with a similar feature set to the RoboKing. It seems to have stalled in Korea as well, possibly because of its three thousand US dollar sticker price.

And there's also the abovementioned Kärcher RC 3000, which costs the same as the Trilobite, and auto-charges and auto-empties. Looks nifty in theory, but apparently isn't much smarter, or more effective, than a Roomba - or the five and a half top-spec Roombas you could buy for the same money.

Of course, I'm sure none of them can hold a candle to the widely eBay-ed RoboSweep.

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