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My first robot- the Roomba 980

It is the end times… the robot apocalypse has begun. My home has been invaded by a horrifying machine that (shudder)… cleans my floors!

 

Terrifying technology

The Roomba 980 is the first Roomba that doesn’t just randomly wander around and bump into things, hoping to eventually clean a space. Instead, it has a camera, and a more advanced computer, that actually ‘sees’ the space and obstacles in front of it. It builds a map while it cleans, and determines which obstacles are solid by gently ‘bumping’ into them. When it cleans, it cleans with purpose: generally tracking straight lines and ‘remembering’ where it may have missed a spot due to having to navigate around obstacles.

Because the 980 has an actual map, it can reliably find its way back to its charging base. This allows it to clean until its battery is low, return to the charging base to recharge, then pick up where it left off later. It also doesn’t repetitively clean the same areas- unless it detects they are extra dirty.

About that detection: in addition to the camera and the previously-mentioned bump sensors, the 980 has an array of sensors to detect things like extra dirt to clean or stairs to avoid. It also has logic to determine whether it is running on a hard floor or carpet. If it is on carpet, it will ramp up the suction power to do a better job cleaning. It also has several sensors to determine whether the dirt receptacle is full.

All of this is supported by an app you can load on your iPhone or Android device. The app lets you set scheduled cleaning, name the Roomba, and keep track of regular maintenance that needs to be performed.

Humanity is still useful… for now

The Roomba is fairly smart, but sometimes it is incredibly dumb. It is doggedly persistent when trying to clean under things. It will over-ride what little self-preservation logic it has to jam itself under our couch, presumably because the couch’s ‘skirt’ blocks the Roomba’s camera. I’ve repeatedly come home after a cleaning to find it stuck in the same position- nose first under the couch, error message flashing pitifully.

The 980 is also easily confused by large, light-weight objects like cardboard boxes. We have cats, so there are a few boxes around the house, and the Roomba will occasionally angrily push them all over the floor. I say ‘angrily’ because it periodically pauses, spins around, and bangs into the box a few times- it just seems ticked off to me. And the robot also has a problem with open doors. It will pass through them happily, and is strong enough to close them while trying to clean around or behind them… but isn’t equipped to re-open them. I’ve found my Roomba trapped in the bathroom on one occasion due to this.

One of the coolest features of the Roomba- its camera / vision system- is also one of its weaknesses. The 980 needs to be able to ‘see’ to work and, just like us, requires light. This means that you can’t have the Roomba 980 clean your house at night without leaving the lights on. Apparently it is afraid of the dark, and will quickly scuttle back to its charging station, defeated by the large unseeable areas beyond its camera’s range.

The Roomba 980 is also very needy. It ‘needs’ a lot of maintenance to stay operational. Emptying the debris bin is a no brainer, but the entire vacuum path needs to be thoroughly cleaned on a regular basis e.g.: once a week or so. The engineering of the Roomba is excellent, and they provide fantastic tutorials on the process. This makes this chore about as easy as it can be; but it is frustrating when the sensors which detect whether the bin is full need to be cleaned almost as often as the bin itself.

Cleaning performed by the Roomba is adequate. But it isn’t as good as a properly-wielded full size vacuum- nor is it very efficient. I can vacuum the hardwood portion of the main floor of our house in about 20 minutes, and the Roomba takes nearly 1.5 hours to perform the same task. Being generous, thats about 600 square feet per hour. Carpet cleaning is slower and will more rapidly drain the Roomba’s charge- if we add another 300 square feet of carpet on the main floor, the Roomba takes over two hours and has to pause for 1.5 hours to recharge.

The Robot Overlords… kind of cute, actually

I’ve lived with the Roomba now for several months and, despite its oddities, I’m fairly pleased with it. I wouldn’t suggest that it can replace all human drudgery- a full-blown vacuum wielded by a skilled operator is faster and more thorough. But the Roomba does a great job cleaning up the cat fur that rolls around the hardwood in between full vacuuming efforts. I’d say that, if you can afford the cost, it is a worthwhile investment to keep the dust and fur under control.

And it is kind of cute to watch our cat, Pippin, play with the Roomba while it is trying to do its job. Apparently the Robot Overlords can be easily quelled by playful cats…

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