World in Motion

March 1, 2007
Back story Engineers working at iRobot proposed the concept of a vacuuming robot to the company's co-founders, Colin Angle and Helen Greiner, who gave

Back story

Engineers working at iRobot proposed the concept of a vacuuming robot to the company's co-founders, Colin Angle and Helen Greiner, who gave the go-ahead and internal seed funding to create a prototype. The engineering team aspired to design the first affordable home robot that really worked — and give people a smarter, easier way to clean their homes.

Some surprising design challenges developed during early testing. For one, navigating around an ever changing household environment proved difficult. Roomba also needed to fit under furniture and get around things like kitchen cabinets. Then there were stairs. Besides that, instead of typical once-a-week vacuuming, people were using the units much more often. Engineers addressed these issues with dozens of specialized sensors, low profile design, and a powerful battery pack.

Design impact

According to Nancy Dussault, iRobot's director of global marketing, the company has sold more than two million units since Roomba's 2002 debut. Owners range from Jetsonesque parents and pet owners to the elderly and people with disabilities. Since then, the company has introduced two other home robots — Scooba, who washes floors, and Dirt Dog, who picks up sawdust, nails, and other debris. No word yet on a toilet-cleaning model.

Roomba's military brothers are busy too, with 800 PackBots deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan to destroy improvised explosive devices. The PackBot 510 uses a game-style controller for easier training and operation, and is 30 percent faster, drags larger objects, and has a grip three times stronger than its predecessor.

How it works

Roomba's “AWARE” robot intelligence system uses dozens of sensors to monitor its environment and adjust behavior up to 67 times per second. Some of the infrared sensors send and receive signals to detect stairs, cliffs, furniture, people, pets, and other obstacles, while others scan for dirt.

A spinning side brush works with a side sensor to detect and clean along walls and around furniture. Roomba emits an infrared signal and checks to see if the signal bounces back; it then adjusts its routine to clean around objects or avoid stairs. Two counter-rotating brushes capture large debris, while a high-efficiency vacuum picks up dust and small particles.

A soft rubber bumper contains an infrared receiver that picks up signals from Roomba's home base. At the end of cleaning, or when battery power is low, Roomba looks for the signal and goes home to recharge. Two fully charged batteries let Roomba clean for up to 200 minutes.

Vac to the future

Imagine a robotic maid tidying up the house while your family watches TV. It's a scene right out of The Jetsons. George and Jane had Rosie to lend an electromechanical hand during their 2062-based sitcom; today, more than two million Roomba vacuuming robots help out in households across the planet.

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