I finally watched a Roomba dance its funky dance.

The iRobot Roomba 550 we affectionately named Butler spent a half-hour cleaning the 4 downstairs rooms of a home, sucking up an impressive gob of dust from the previous night’s party.

Hello, Roomba
Hello, Roomba!

I finally watched a Roomba dance its funky dance.

The iRobot Roomba 550 we affectionately named Butler spent a half-hour cleaning the 4 downstairs rooms of a home, sucking up an impressive gob of dust from the previous night’s party.*

As I watched Roomba, I realized I’d forgotten…

How much we are inclined to anthropomorphize technology.

How we’re wired to perceive complex reasoning where only simple behavior exists.

How important it is to have users on your side!
(Roomba was occasionally bumbling but always so helpful — looking everywhere for last night’s crumbs, remembering which area needs more attention, and just generally “doing his best.”)

First Impressions

The design of the unit is clean, sleek, and functional.

Roomba in Motion across the rug
Roomba in Motion, scooting across the rug

The “wall following” behavior is particularly clever and plays to the strengths of the round unit.

Object detection mostly works (it’s supposed to slow down before a bumper-kiss), but it was blind to some antique table legs on our test run, threatening to knock over some photo frames and antique china.

Its motion is smooth, and it successfully un-stuck itself from the curtains.

I loved watching it ultimately find “home base” by IR and dock with it, 2001 Blue Danube style.

But I worried..

  • About non-techie users having to choose a “home base” location. A sleepy Roomba needs to locate its home, but a resting Roomba is hardly showpiece décor.
  • About long-term battery wear and life.
  • About how often you’d need to empty the dust out of his bowels, and what happens if you forget to do so.
Roomba Cleaning Patterns (from the manual - click for .pdf download link)
Roomba Cleaning Patterns (from the manual .pdf)

Navigation & Hackery & Papers

Roomba uses behaviors like spiraling, wall-following and room crossing (as explained in the image, right, from the manual) to create its not-quite-completely-random walk.

And below, check out this very clever 30-minute long-exposure photo (found at SignalTheorist via Botjunkie) that reveals the Roomba’s “Lovely, Inefficient” cleaning path.

Roomba Path Long Exposure
Roomba Cleaning Path – Long Exposure Image

This brings us inevitably to the hacking. iRobot, to their credit, encourage you to hack Roomba!

Martha, whose Roomba apparently can bring her beer (wait… what?!), recommends the book Hacking Roomba. Here’s the book’s companion website.

Is anyone still using Microsoft Robotics Studio for stuff like this?  (ah, the memories of dancing Lego robots.)

In the meantime, with my head full of Roomba, it’s the perfect time to re-read some of iRobot Founder Rodney Brooks‘ seminal papers, like Intelligence Without Representation and Elephants Don’t Play Chess.

Because Elephants these days apparently can clean living rooms!

*the dust was left behind from the previous night’s party, in an otherwise impeccably clean home (i.e. not mine)

3 thoughts on “Roomba”

  1. Hi Rob,

    Great overview of a first encounter with a Roomba! I’ve now had mine for about a year and have been very happy with them.

    To answer your worries:
    I did a lot of research on the models and by most accounts, Roombas don’t seem to last incredibly long. I scrapped my plans to buy the expensive kitted-out model with docking station and components and instead bought the cheapest one on Amazon (and it’s red!). So I don’t dock it. I’m just in a pattern of a couple of times a week, turning it on before I leave for work (it’s loud so I usually don’t have it on for very long if I’m home) and then coming home, locating the Roomba, emptying the dust and plugging him in to charge. It’s a bit low-tech but I don’t mind.

    Now for the hackery:
    If you don’t care about vacuuming/hoovering, get the iRobot instead. It’s cheaper, you can get components like bluetooth modules to fit and work more easily, it’s a bit more plug-n-play. Plus it has a shelf (for beer, mentioned in a moment). I have both, but end up using the iRobot more for messing around since it’s lighter and a bit more designed for that. There are plenty of articles on using Robotics Studio for this including this one on MSDN: so don’t worry. The Hacking Roomba book is key as it has some brilliant projects and fun ideas. The beer caddy was unfortunately a joke, although it has been my goal for some time to get to the point where my NXT can open the fridge, grab the beer, dump it in the tray of the iRobot, and the iRobot brings it over, but getting them to work together has not been easy. Yet. This is a good reminder to myself that I need to do a blog post on what I’ve done with mine so far, so will try to get that up over Christmas. Thanks, Rob!


    p.s. I realize I have never named any of my robots! Doh! Will name them prior to blog post. ;-)

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