kyle cassidy (kylecassidy) wrote,
kyle cassidy

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Meet George Jettson....

How do you get a robot to clean your house? The old world of robot design would suggest that you make a contraption which can see dirt, recognize objects in a room, and push a vacuum around, cleaning the carpet and avoiding the chairs. That's old robot thinking though. Robby Brooks changed the world of robotics with his paper Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control, where he argued that scientists have been wasting their time trying to create complex, intelligent robots. Instead of spending years and millions to create a single robot with problem solving abilities (like recognizing a chair) why not, he posits, create dozens, maybe even hundreds of stupid robots that perform one task with single minded determination. And the people at were apparently paying attention, because in my living room at this very moment, there is a robot sweeping up cat hair. Christy named it Higgins, after the butler in Magnum, PI.

The clever folks at have designed a robot which, like a child's toy, does little more than move in a straight line until it hits something and then go in another direction. In actuality, it has a repitoir of more complex maneuvers to keep it from getting stuck between two walls or in the same route back and forth across a carpet.

The Roomba (which is what the people at irobot call it) is notable more for what it doesn't do than what it does. After hearing that someone had designed a machine which would sweep up, unattended, I was surprised to find that there was no programming mode that would allow me to, say, tell Higgins to clean the living room at 3:00 in the afternoon, so I'd come home to a cat-hair-free carpet. I was also surprised to find out that there's not a home cleaning program which would allow it to, for example, clean the living room for 30 minutes before being "called" into the t.v. room to clean there for another 30 minutes, after which it would be "called" into the kitchen to clean, possibly pausing to charge at various base stations in between. While the Roomba comes with a pair of Pain Lasers (my language), battery powered IR beams that the robot won't cross, it doesn't come with attracting beams that you can program to come on after a certain time which the robot will be drawn to.

In total, I was surprised that the Roomba seems not to be really designed for unattended house cleaning but rather for marginally attended cleaning. A person needs to be there to start it, (though, when it begins to run out of battery power, it will seek out it's base station and "go home" to recharge) and to cart it from room to room. Most puzzling, is the inclusion of a remote control which allows you to start your Roomba and drive it around the carpet, I can only imagine the concept was that supremely lazy people would sit on the sofa and direct their cleaning with a joystick. I'd also like some sort of voice activation. I'd like to be able to sit in my living room and bark "Higgins! clean the living room rug!" or "Higgins! Sweep the Kitchen!" and have the robot called by a remote beacon to do its little dance.

In my first outing with Higgens, it got stuck three times in the living room -- this is to be expected. I identified the danger spots (coming off the rug and banging into the fireplace seemed treacherous, as did running over a pile of cords in the corner. One by one I blocked off the danger zones and it did a fairly good job of cleaning the carpet.

The cats reacted to Higgins in different, though predictable ways, most likely the same way they would react to a burglar. Mr. Hugs perked his ears up when it started cleaning and then went to sleep on some clothes. Tatiana moved immediately to defend the house from the interloper, showing intense interest. Milla complained bitterly from the second floor that Tatty needed to be doing more to stop the strange thing crawling around the floor.

The kitchen was something of a puzzler though. I was very impressed at how it did a great job of cleaning around the chair legs, but at least four times it stopped during its cleaning cycle to announce, gleefully, that it was finished. This required a restart. When the battery started to go down (like Ultraman's belly, it begins flashing) I told it to go home and watched with some satisfaction as it wandered around for a while looking for the charger's IR beam then happily found it and parked itself. It was somewhat annoying to have to pick up the base station and move it from room to room, but I can see buying several and only having to move Higgins himself.

There are several different models of Roomba, from the basic unit, which goes for about $150, to the Discovery, which at $250, includes a base station which the robot will seek out at the end of it's cleaning cycle to recharge.

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