Robots: As Human Partners, Part 2

(robots performing mundane household tasks)

Robot floor scrubber from iRobot cleans up in the home chores department

The idea of robots performing mundane household tasks such as washing dishes, sweeping floors and tidying is appealing. Indeed, TV shows including "The Jetsons" and "Lost in Space" have helped build expectations that robots would one day take the tedium out of daily house chores.

The company, IRobot, that gave the public the Roomba robotic floor vacuum has now unleashed Scooba, a smart mop that further shortens the list of domestic duties.

In one pass, Scooba can pick up loose dirt and debris, lay down a cleaning solution, scrub the floor and then squeegee it dry, according to iRobot. Most of that proved true in testing a loaner from the company.

Scooba, like its older sibling Roomba, is a nicely designed unit. The pale blue, round chassis is about three inches high and fourteen inches in diameter. The top comes off easily, revealing the rechargeable battery in the base. The hood holds the cleaning solution and a container for the dirty water that is sucked up by rubber tubing during scrubbing.

Scooba uses two ounces of a special, bleach-free Clorox cleaner with the rest of the tank filled with water. If Scooba grows in popularity, expect to see this solution at a supermarket shelf near you.

Once the Scooba was fully charged Scooba, it was only a two button process to get it started. Pressing the "power" to wake Scooba up and "clean" to make it start scrubbing was simple enough. Scooba came to life, emitting a few tones of agreement to let the user know it was on the job, and it began its duties.

At first the unit spun around in a slowly widening spiral, but eventually it set out on a few straight paths across the sealed cement floor. As the unit reached table legs and chairs, it nudged them and redirected itself. Scooba has a very gentle touch in this respect and didn't leave and marks on the walls or topple a classical guitar resting in a corner. It simply made its rounds.

Scooba's little brain was quite impressive. A small fist-sized device that shoots a beam of light to create a virtual wall, it helped corral Scooba on the hard floor and away from a carpet. Scooba also knew enough not to send itself toppling down a small flight of stairs.

The unit only got stuck once between a wall and a bicycle tire. Try as it might, Scooba couldn't free itself and eventually gave up and powered down until it was rescued.

After about twenty minutes of crawling around, Scooba had wiped the dining room spotless, even swallowing the brownie crumbs strategically tossed to test its thoroughness. The self-cleaning only went so far. Scooba stopped about halfway through several tests with a small "check tank" display and a belly full of dirty water. The hood had to be removed and the waste water dumped into the toilet before continuing its tasks.

Scooba didn't exactly squeegee the floor dry, as advertised. Instead, it left a snail trail of cleaning solution. That dried quickly, however, leaving only a squeaky clean floor behind. All told, Scooba still required far less manual labor than traditional floor cleaning.

This test proved to be a major victory for progress in task-oriented robotics. The price tag may scare away some potential buyers, but not having to scrub floors could make it well worth the price for many people.

Roomba is iRobot's vacuum cleaner

The little semi-autonomous, battery-powered vacs are extremely good at certain tasks; such as, dusting under beds, and sweeping up dry, localized messes, but it is not so good at others. Shag carpets, for instance, need something better. Mostly they're entertaining, bumping and meandering their way around a room like a Star Wars android, occasionally beeping "uh-oh" to let the user know it has choked itself on speaker wire or the tassels of an area rug. The latest Roomba, dubbed the "Discovery", is noticeably improved, but the many users will still want more.

While the shape and attitude of the Roomba remains the same, much of its anatomy is changed. The most obvious improvement is its dust reservoir which is now a single easy-to-remove piece. People can just pop it out, pull out the air filter and empty both over the garbage. Before, these were two separate hatches on the Roomba's body, so a person ended up shaking the whole vac over the garbage and making quite a mess.

Roomba can now dock itself in the battery charger when batteries are low. The talent is limited, however, because it can only get to its dock if it's already within five feet of the thing. Guess who has to pick it up and place it within five feet?

The third major enhancement is the Dirt Alert sensor. Probing the floor for a high concentration of dirt particles, Roomba makes additional passes in the dirtiest areas to get it all up before moving on into its path. Combined with the "Spot" cleaning function introduced in the last generation, this feature amplifies Roomba's role as an expensive DustBuster buster.

After putting the "Roomba Discovery" through the paces, a person will find that it still has short comings. Not only does the latest get hung up on the same wires and rug fringes that its predecessors did, but it still has a haphazard way of covering the floor, never sure where it's been or where it's going. No matter what room it gets to work in, the user still must go to its aid, and when certain parts of the floor were dotted with carpet freshener, it was observed that after quite some time, that some of my dots still hadn't been touched.

People are still waiting for the killer Roomba, to be upright and intimidating, with a full-size bag and a processor that can map a room with precision. The dream Roomba would also have to have a retractable nozzle for cleaning corners, something today's disc-shaped model just can't reach. Until then, sadly, people will have to do it themselves.

—Excerpts came from various sources.

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