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May 31, 2005

What My Robot Did This Weekend

Like watching TV, it now takes a nerd to vacuum.  I’m not sure we nerds come out ahead on this one.

Our new vacuum cleaner is a robot named Roomba.  Roomba comes to us from Sharper Image and there’s a rumor that he’s part Ionic Breeze although he certainly doesn’t look anything like the great air filter.  Since this is a family blog, I won’t describe how one determines the sex of a non-anthromorphic droid.   Roomba is about the size of a horseshoe crab and moves with the same gait.  Horseshoe crabs have eyes, though; Roomba navigates by belligerently bumping into things and then changing direction.

The direction-changing algorithm is clever and looks like it has some randomizing elements.  I have never managed to trap Roomba; he can get out of any space he blunders into.  Sometimes he does bump doors closed and locks himself into small rooms; but then he cleans those small rooms very thoroughly.  Roomba doesn’t get into loops, either.  Somehow his pattern changes so he blunders off to find new fields to clean.  He doesn’t topple down stairs.  He can be corralled into an area by two electronic beam fences which come with him (more available, of course).  He can also be kicked into changing direction but he is perverse about which direction he changes to.

When Roomba is running out of power, he often finds his way back to his docking station where he can recharge.  However, having gorged on electrons, he shuts himself down and sleeps in the dock and has to be prodded to go back to work.  You’d think, being all charged up, he’d just get back to work on his own. 

Sometime Roomba runs out of power in places too obscure for him to get back safely to his dock. If you don’t hear his final pathetic bleats as his battery dies, it can be hard to find him in whatever place he chose to swoon.

He isn’t really all that self-sufficient.  That’s why Roomba had to spend his first weekend here training us.  First, he is very strict on demanding that certain things like electric cords and hanging strings from blinds and drapes be taken off the floor.  Otherwise he winds them around his wheels and brushes and plays an annoying tune to say we’ve failed him again and he is shutting down to avoid damage to his precious self.  I’m sure there’ll soon be somewhere from which I can download new ringtones for him.

Second, Roomba needs to be emptied and have his brushes and filter cleaned.  This involves removing a number of parts which try to fall into the trash with the dirt and have to be replaced before Roomba can rumble again.  I’m tempted to file a patent application for a self-cleaning Roomba.  I used to have an electric train hopper car that did that.  The patent (for those of you familiar with patent-speak) would “teach a method whereby a version of floor-cleaning droid ascends a ramp and an electromagnetic force or other impulse is used to open a trap in its underside whereby accumulated debris would fall into a receptacle.  Alternatively, said droid positions itself over a pit containing said receptacle…”  Embellishments, also covered by my vapor patent, would include a detector to make sure said receptacle was actually in place before said droid relieves himself and a mechanism whereby said droid’s air flow and brushes reverse for more complete disgorgement of debris.

Now with hair from two dogs and peanut shells, our house is a bit of a vacuuming challenge.  Roomba’s immediate predecessor was a central vacuuming system whose tubes have become clogged with some combination of the above ingredients.  This is a hardware problem so a nerd like me can’t fix it.  Now you know why I ordered Roomba.

Is using Roomba easier than actually vacuuming?  That’s debatable given all the preclearing of obstacles, the emptying and brush-cleaning, and the need to restart him after he recharges when the cleaning is still undone.  But he is certainly more interesting than anything from Hoover or Oreck.

Roomba_1Roomba trying to trace the dog hair to its source. (note who is watching from the lower left)

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