The Roomba is, at its most basic, a robotic vacuum cleaner. Designed by the Cambridge, MA-based iRobot (Lucy-S, who has a contact there, says this is definitely a deliberate Asimov reference), the Roomba is available at retailers around the U.S. for under $200. It is billed as able to handle a room at a time, but most importantly, to require no human intervention other than to start it and then empty/recharge it when it has finished. Sensors around the disc-shaped bot handle navigation and obstacle avoidance. It comes with one 'Virtual Wall' - essentially a doorstop-shaped device which (AFAICT) emits an IR beam. This is used to block off open doorways. If the bot encounters the beam, it treats it (algorithmically) like a wall, hence the name.

Some friends of mine just presented me with one of these things as a deliberately silly 'housewarming' present, so I felt compelled to write up my first couple experiences with the Roomba for my E2 brethren.

The machine is, as I've mentioned, a disc - it is almost exactly the size of a competition Frisbee (around 1 foot in diameter) and is perhaps 3.5-4 inches tall. There is a handle on top (which flips out for use). The controls consist of a power switch on the side next to the AC power connector and three buttons on top - S,M,L - which tell Roomba what 'size' room it will be cleaning.

The three of us (myself and the two gift presenters) were excited to see the thing in action, and were mildly disappointed that upon unpacking it required a 12-hour initial battery charge, but we can't consider that to be a strike against it. On the contrary, it appears to have a fairly high-cap rechargable battery pack (user-replaceable) which is a good thing.

There is a refuse bin which slides out of one side, which is to be emptied after each use (or in the middle of a large room, if Roomba complains that the bin is full). The bot moves on several knobbly wheels on its underbody; it had no trouble with carpet, slick flooring or (non-fringed) area rugs, moving over all with ease. The 'front' 165 degrees or so of arc are covered by a multiple-actuator 'bumper' which allows Roomba to not only determine when it has hit something, but roughly in what direction the object is. Embedded in the bumper are small lenses which (I presume) are for the Virtual Wall.

The underside is fairly busy - in addition to the primary rotating brush, there is an 'edger' - two toothbrush-like things on opposite ends of a rubber stick, which rotates so that each travels just beyond the edge of the bot's hull. The drive wheels are here as well.


Roomba performs quite well on smooth flooring (wood, vinyl, etc), picking up nearly all refuse it encounters. The vacuum is not powerful enough to 'suck in' dust from outside the bot's footprint, but the bot is diligent enough that this shouldn't be a problem. The algorithm that it uses to determine where it should go is said to be adapted from U.S. military mine-clearing robots; while I don't know if this is true, I can say that it's pretty thorough. While I can grasp the general thrust of it from watching it in action a couple of times, I still don't know what it's doing in constricted areas - all I know is that it does an excellent job of covering them entirely. In fact, it is adept enough at navigating that I watched it trundle underneath a sofa which had boxes stacked in front of perhaps two-thirds of its length, and promptly turn behind them and out of sight. With a few minutes of whirring and clicking, it emerged from behind the boxes and deftly turned 90 degrees to come out from underneath the sofa.

As a vacuum cleaner, it is fair. On wood floors, it did a fine job, to the point where I would consider a Roomba-ing perhaps 80-85% of a human vac job; most of the difference would come from a human's ability to lift the vacuum so as to clear out obscured spaces and use a hose attachment to traverse underneath low-bottomed coffee tables and the like. Roomba's packaging states that it is intended for use 'in between periodic deep vacuuming' and as such it does an excellent job. On carpeting, it did not do nearly as well; however, in my case this meant also being in an extremely cluttered room. Despite this, Roomba only got stuck once, and that was because it had managed to ingest a shoelace end into a rotating part. To its credit, it stopped immediately, made a plaintive 'help!' tone, and shut down, waiting. The carpeted area contained a few heavier bits of refuse - namely, paper pellets that I'd placed there in sadistic expectation. Roomba picked up most of them, but was unable to grab those that had rolled near the wall - the edger is fine for dust bunnies, but ineffective at grabbing stuff with any heft to it.

That's okay, though. This thing is damn-all entertaining. It has sensors on it so that if a cat (or anyone else) tries to jump on top to grab a ride, it makes a sulky noise and stops (I witnessed this, my cat is a weighty beast). I placed a Furby atop the Roomba at start just for a laugh; in the non-sofa room, the Furby remained in place the entire run.

The only quibble I have is that it seems to want a full 12 hour charge after every use, which limits its utility. On the other hand, I have put it in the living room, punched 'go' and left the house for a few hours to come home and find the living room floor clean and Roomba patiently waiting in a corner - and as such, it really does what it promise.

Update in response to GrouchyOldMan below:

Yup, it really does get pet hair (I have two cats and two ferrets). It has a rotating brush underneath, not just a vac, so static-clinging stuff isn't a problem. I have to go check out the animation - from your description, that's *exactly* what it does! I'm impressed. :-) The only gotcha, as far as I've seen, is with string-like things, which include:

  • phone cords
  • rug fringes -BAD
  • shoelaces
  • string
  • CAT-5 cable
More constrained, coarser stuff like phone/CAT-5 will simply get snagged under the Roomba and pulled around, which might result in things getting pulled off tables, and also will probably confuse the bot as to where it is when it gets 'turned' by something other than its own little botbrain. Finer stuff like shoelaces and rug fringes can easily get 'reeled' up into the rotating parts beneath. iRobot suggests tucking rug fringes underneath the carpet before starting the Roomba; and, really, what're shoelaces and CAT-5 doing on the floor you're vacuuming anyway? ;-)

There's a oval-shaped purple button on the Roomba website1 labeled "Tour Roomba!" And if you click on this button, a Flash animation appears showing a computer-generated living room with a yellow carpet covered with little black gobs of digital dirt.  A circular gray and black device sits near the center of the room like a dozing trilobite.  It's about the size and shape as a medium pizza, and perhaps 15 centimeters tall.  After a few seconds, the device begins to creep around the room, sucking up the digital dirt whenever it runs over the top of it, but not appearing to "look" for it in any obvious way.  It starts out in a loose counterclockwise spiral, then bumps into a table leg and veers off on some random looking tangent, hits a wall, another tangent. After a minute it gets kind of frustrating because there's a lot less dirt left laying around to suck up, and a lot more dumb near misses.  

And about that time is when you get hooked.  The device appears really dumb, but damned if it doesn't get every last shred of digidirt and then go back and work the corners looking for more.  A legend at the bottom informs us that the complete animation runs 15 minutes, but in less than three minutes all the visible dirt is gone.  As the device bounces and spirals, the legend gives us a hint of what it is thinking: "spiral," "cris-cross," "wall-following."  It's addictive to watch.

Headlines appear across the screen,

  • I'm working out at the gym
  • I'm playing with my kids
  • I'm having lunch with a friend
  • I'm planting flowers in my garden.

And My Floor Is Getting Clean!

Introducing Roomba
Intelligent Floorvac
A revolution in home cleaning
Just $199.95

iRobot3 released what may be the first really practical domestic robot vacuum cleaner in time for Christmas gift sales.  And those sales appear to have been brisk.  At $199 U.S. the Roomba vacuum targets the increasing niche of working professionals who have more money than time. That demographic includes an increasing number of people with dirty floors. 

After watching the animation half a dozen times (hey, I'm easily entertained, what can I say!), I went to explore the Roomba website further and was soon rewarded with a quicktime movie showing a real, live Roomba in action2 while the voiceover informs us: "Housekeeping may soon be a thing of the past....Roomba, product of the future at a breakthrough price."  Best of all is a moment of high drama when dear little Roomba heads straight for a fatal stumble off a high set of stairs, "Oh No!" Happily that clever robot stops at the last second, appears to think over his options then slowly retreats My kids and I had to play that bit another half a dozen times before we finally stopped laughing.

Then I continued my search, already a little fond of Roomba for entertainment value alone, but looking for the fatal flaw.  The more I read, the more impressed I was.  Roomba looks pretty well thought out and reasonably well made.  The artificial intelligence routines that control Roomba's actions aren't touted as perfect, but merely good enough.  Hey, that's fair, and when it comes to vacuuming my floor, good enough is plenty useful.  In my household, I'm the designated vacuum-bitch, and I'm only good enough myself! 

Roomba has a set of (NiMH) rechargeable batteries, that probably go dead eventually, and cost a fortune to replace, but you handle that by purchasing the extra "extended warranty," plan so they have to keep sending you new ones.  You have to empty the dust bin after every use, but it looks as though they've made that pretty easy.  It has some fancy edge cleaning brushes that scrape along the walls and other edges, which is better than my real vacuum does. Roomba goes from rug to hardwood floor to tile and back again without missing a beat, and the ad copy claims that it picks up pet hair, which has got to be the worst.

So far, no glaring flaw emerged and I'm wondering if I've got a spare two hundred clams in my piggy bank.  Then, in small and inconspicuous print I find exactly what I'm looking for, the Roomba User Forum!  I want to hear what real people who have slapped down their hard cash think of "The Intelligent FloorVac." 

And you know what, they really like it!

Roomba Rocks!!!
"My wife and i bought the roomba over christmas (our little present)
and everyday we use it - we're more impressed. This little device is
soooooo cool! we have kids on the way, so this little helper is
going to be great, i look forward to the kids chasing it around the
house!  iRobot folks, this is an EXCELLENT PRODUCT! now just make a 150$ lawn mower robot that is weatherproof, and i'll be first in line :)"

Pretty happy with the little critter
"...Right now we are still having friends over for fun evenings
of "drinks and watching the vacuum." What can I say - it's a long
dark winter up here in Alaska and we get starved for entertainment.
The cats HATE it, but quickly learned that they are safe when they
are up on the chairs. They don't fear it, by the way - they just
dislike it intensely. The dog is intrigued by it and sometimes
mildly offended when it bumps him. No attempts to herd it yet. The
humans are charmed by it. You can't help but anthropomorphize the
little thing."

Ahh!! Daddy help,Roombas got my dolly!!
"My daughter's Barbie doll became entangled in one of Roomba's
wheel units while it was cleaning the living room rug. Does
anyone know of a way to remove the wheels to check for
materials that may get wound around them?
My wife is thrilled with the robots performance;but I must agree
with the previous e-mail about expectations for a short life span
for this engratiatingly helpfull droid."

And this jewel:

First Roomba Hack
"I'd like to announce the first (to the best of my knowledge) modification made to a Roomba...In the spirit of David Letterman, grab youself one of those $79 Xcam2 wireless video camera kits from, strap it on your Roomba and create... ROOMBA-CAM! Watch your floors getting cleaned from a Roombas-eye view! :D  Will have video from my Roomba-Cam in action, digitized and uploaded soon! :)"

Now is that cool or what?

1Roomba website:

2Roomba in action: mms://

3More bitchin widgets at the iRobot website:

4Scooba, Robotic Floor Washer: eak_preview.cfm

Update May 2005

Well, it's taken a couple of years and a few generations of Roomba for iRobot to get it completely right, but they have finally succeeded. The spiffy new Roomba "Discovery" sports a ruby red color, hand-help remote control, easy to clean brushes and software that allows it to return automatically to its battery charging station at the end of a cleaning cycle.

After being teased into watching a live demo at the local Brookstone store, I am the proud owner of two Roombas who routinely work our house over. The novelty factor is over for everyone except the family cat who still climbs up on the couch and stares balefully whenever the Roomba twins show up. The rest of us step over the little robots without a second thought.

They work pretty damned well at keeping the place respectable, and have reduced the need for a really deep hand vacuuming to about twice a year rather than once a month. They don't clean deeply, but they certainly scoop up all the surface dirt; a pretty good value when you consider that it only takes a minute to drop them in the room and push the start button. They're pretty noisy to be in the same room with, and they have a curious and ultimately annoying way of dogging your ankles like a playful puppy.

Announcing Scooba4

I guess I should have seen this coming; having perfected the robo-vacuum, iRobot has taken the obvious next step and created Scooba, a robotic wet floor mop. Using the same basic technology as Roomba, Scooba "vacuums, washes and dries" in a single pass according to the company press-release. Scooba won't be on the market until late 2005, and the first version will probably have some bugs, but there's no reason to believe that iRobot won't get this one right too.

If Scooba works as well as Roomba, it may actually be time to throw away the bucket and mop!

Thanks to Mum for the heads up on Scooba!

The Roomba is a autonomous vacuum cleaner, the first true consumer robotic product. There have been other robots designed for consumer use, but before the Roomba was created, a household robot was a hobbyist toy that people used to impress their gadget-minded friends. There are also very many successful commercial, military, and industrial robots, but you won’t find them in someone’s living room.

The Roomba is a product of the iRobot (nice Asimov reference) Company, whose tagline is “Robots for the real world”. In addition to the Roomba, the company also makes robots for explosive ordinance disposal and hazardous materials handling and telepresence for commercial, government, and municipality use. The Roomba is currently their only consumer product.

Basically, the Roomba is programmed to take a route through a room that covers the entire floor with minimal overlap, vacuuming as it goes. In addition to replacement batteries, filters, and such, accessories include a self-charging base, where the robot can direct itself to recharge when it recognizes its battery is low, and a “virtual wall”, a device that beams a signal that tells the Roomba a boundary exists. (One must still empty the dirt bin oneself.)

Interestingly enough, Robert Heinlein wrote about the first consumer robot in the book The Door into Summer, where he basically foretold that the first household robot would be no more than an autonomous vacuum cleaner. His protagonist’s “Hired Girl” brand of robotic vacuum cleaners paved the way for robots in every facet of society. iRobot should read that book (or at least the technology bits, there are many prophetic gadgets described in it beyond household robots) as he also describes some improvements like a feature where the robot vac picks up unknown stuff from the floor and puts it on a tray for later sorting by the owner.

The Roomba has been pretty successful in the marketplace, with several companies making lesser, knock-off products (imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.)

A military robot iRobot makes is also referred to as a "doomba".

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