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Roomba: The Little Robot that Inspired

The Roomba is an icon of robotics. Has been such since 2002, when iRobot corporation first launched the little devil. Powered by simplistic AI, Roomba is an autonomous vacuum cleaner. The first Roomba was a bit flaky in some areas, but there have been several generations now, and it is starting to be an attractive option for many.

Roombas are also, because of their relative affordability for what they are, increasingly used as 'geek play toys' or robot modding bases, with all manner of wacky AR gadgets based directly off of them by enthusiastic hobbyists.

The Roomba comes with a docking station, a virtual lighthouse, and a virtual wall. The docking station provides power, the lighthouse is a beacon that keeps the Roomba within a dozen feet of it whilst turned on, and the virtual wall, a strip on the floor to mark areas Roomba cannot cross into.

The whole thing is just over a foot in diameter, and four inches high (30cm x 10cm). It is carried into place, the first time it is used, and just placed down on the floor. If upstairs, the virtual wall is typically placed at the head of the stairs, to discourage Roomba from sailing out over the abyss. Otherwise it is placed across an open front door or back door, to discourage garden exploring.

Roomba has an insect-like brain (it was actually modelled on an insect). There are no visual sensors, it explores and maps a room by touch, striking out in a given direction and seeing what it encounters. The first few times through a room, it may go over and over and over the same area many times. However, once it has figured out the dimensions of the room and location of any large furniture within it, the robot will develop on its own, the optimal pattern for cleaning.

When finished, the robot wanders into another room and another, and another, until eventually its power runs low. It calls out to its base station, and using a variant on utilise simultaneous location and mapping (SLAM) algorithms, navigates its way back through the rooms its been in, to its base station. There it docks, and charges up, waiting to be called out to vacuum again.

One of the more impressive features is the inclusion of an IR remote control, to steer and guide the robot, allowing it to serve as a waldo for someone who physically cannot vacuum normally, It also has a scheduler function that can be activated via pc network - to tell it to vacuum at the same time every day, for example. Roomba will disengage itself from its docking station, and wander all round the house, then plug itself back in. In this manner, it can clean floors quite happily for months at a time, if no-one is in the house.

One drawback is the dust bay at the back of the robot. As yet, its not self-emptying, as an intelligent bin would have to be designed to work with it, so it must still be manually emptied if the compartment fills. Roomba has an internal speaker assembly that very helpfully tells you when this needs doing. The speaker is also used to whine and wail like a lost puppy, if it encounters a very deep pile carpet, or gets jammed in an area and cannot get itself out. It howls and howls until someone rescues it.

Thus, the robot has all the functions one might desire to find in a basic robotics system. It is a modder's dream, and mod it they do. Everything from interfacing with a Wii, to floor moppers, robotic lawnmowers, to a bizarre version of Frogger, played with real cars on a freeway (until one of the players misjudged the distance from a speeding car - *crunch*).

So much inspiration, which has often leaded to very real products to add to the ease of taking care of a home for those who find themselves unable to, has been attributed to that little robot, and its makers' willingness to let people play.

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