Letters From America: Welcome to the 21st Century

originally sent on 24th February 2004

It’s finally happened.

Today, my Robotic Housemaid arrived.

OK, so unlike the robots we were promised in the 1950s it doesn’t do the dishes or make cocktails, but the Roomba is a fully-mechanised robot vacuum cleaner.

It’s about the size of a large dinner plate, and approximately four inches high. It has a little bumper on the front which tells it when it’s hit something, and a tiny dust collector which you need to empty after each room.

Some grainy pictures of the Roomba in action:

You set it in the middle of the room and press a button. It sings a jaunty little tune, and then starts cleaning by circling around in a spiral. After a few minutes it starts zig-zagging its way across the room, vacuuming as it goes. After about half-an-hour, it stops and sings a different tune to let you know it’s finished.

An overnight charge from a wall-socket gives you about ten vacuuming cycles.

One thing it’s missing is the ability to run to a wall-socket and re-charge itself when the battery runs low. To be honest, I’m surprised they didn’t do this – it’s perfectly feasible with today’s technology and would mean I had to spend even less time worrying about vacuuming than I do at the moment. (You mean I have to actually plug it in to the wall every so often? I want my money back!)

I’m still trying to work out how it ensures it covers the entire floor. My guess is that it’s got some fairly simple rules that it applies locally, and just relies on the fact that over a long enough time it’s bound to have covered almost everything. Have you hit something? Turn forty-five degrees right and move on. Hit something again? You’re on a wall. Head along it for a while.

Every so often it stops and does what I’m currently thinking of as “seeking” behaviour – doing a half-a-dozen spiral turns before heading off again if it hasn’t hit anything.

It also has some quite smart programming to stop it getting trapped under tables – after it had tried turning through 360 degrees trying to get out from underneath a chair, it used a curving path to escape.

Not only is it cheaper than a cat (over the lifetime) it actually cleans your room for you. The perfect robotic pet.

Now – where’s my flying car, god-dammit.

3 Replies to “Letters From America: Welcome to the 21st Century”

  1. I adore my 1st Roomba, which I named Dobby. People kept offering it socks. iRobot is running an “upgrade” special at the moment, so Dobby’s replacement (Winky? Rosie? Daneel? Dobby Mark II?), which should be able to cope with carpet tassels and power cords, should arrive soon.
    -Anna in Tennessee

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