By Steve Welker
MOUNT AIRY -- Sitting here in front of a computer, while writing this column, I'm also helping my wife with spring cleaning. How? By looking for a robot.
No person I know enjoys housekeeping chores, so why not turn over the work to a nonperson?
The late Isaac Asimov, one of the grand masters of science fiction, described consumer-level robots between 1940 and 1950 in a series of short stories published in “Super Science Stories” and “Astounding Science Fiction.” He compiled them in the sci-fi classic “I, Robot” published in 1950, one year after I was born.
Asimov’s fiction inspired thousands of scientists and engineers who developed the technology of robotics (a word Asimov coined in his 1941 story “Liar!” more than 20 years after playwright Karel Capek invented the word “robot”). Since then, no one has invented the “positronic brain” that guided Asimov’s robots and restricted their behavior under his “Three Laws of Robotics” (first listed in 1942’s “Runaround”). However, the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency’s “Grand Challenge” has shown how engineers can link computers together to manage complex tasks, somewhat like a human brain works.
In its “Grand Challenge,” DARPA offered a $1-million prize to the team whose unmanned, self-guided robot vehicle could complete a 150-mile off-road course through the Mojave Desert from near Barstow, Calif., to Nevada in 10 hours or less. More than 100 teams registered for the 2004 race. None came close to finishing. The best vehicle traveled about 7.4 miles.
Afterwards, some “experts” said it might take 15 years to solve all of the problems.
In fact, it took one.
In the 2005 Grand Challenge, the Stanford (University) Racing Team’s “Stanley,” a Volkswagen Touareg SUV, won the race and a $2-million prize in less than seven hours. Four other vehicles completed the 132-mile course. All but one of the 23 competitors went beyond the 2004 mark.
Stanley’s “brain” was six Pentium computers. For “sight,” it had five laser range-finders, two radars and a digital vision system. Stanley also had a GPS receiver, a GPS compass, an inertial guidance system and a precise digital odometer.
No one really knows how much Stanley cost to build, because corporate sponsors donated much of the hardware. Most people on the 60-member team were either graduate students who work cheap or undergrads who cost nothing at all. Still, they beat the Grand Challenge with only 15 months’ work. IMHO, a government contractor probably would have taken 10 years and $150 million to do the same job.
However, I’m not shopping for a car that can drive itself from Cana to Charlotte. All I need is a robot that can wash windows, clean the gutters, air out the linens and vacuum the floors.
As it happens, the last exists. Even better, it’s affordable.
Two MIT computer-science students, Helen Greiner and Colin Angle, and their professor, Rod Brooks, started the iRobot Co. to develop low-cost robots for common consumer uses. In September 2002, they introduced Roomba, a self-propelled, self-navigating vacuum cleaner. Since then, they’ve sold about 1.5 million copies of the “robotic floorvac,” now in its third generation, and recently introduced Scooba, a self-guided floor mop.
A basic iRobot Roomba costs $150; a top-of-the-line Roomba Scheduler is $330; there are three intermediate models priced at $200 to $300. All are about 13 inches wide and less than 4 inches high.
Roomba operates on rechargeable batteries. The robot does not require special programming. It could hardly be simpler. Put Roomba in a room, push the “on” button and select “clean,” “spot” or “max.” The Scheduler model can be preset to start at a later time — for example, while the owner is at work or asleep.
When Roomba starts doing its thing, the device doesn’t “see” a room or its contents. Instead, Roomba’s computer applies certain strategies, defined in software, such as moving at random until it finds a wall, from which point it circles the room and then spirals in toward the center. If it does not find a wall in a certain period of time, the little robot uses a random pattern to cover the floor. Roomba automatically tracks how much dirt it collects and learns to concentrate on certain areas. If power runs low, it stops and chimes an alarm or, in newer models, follows an infrared signal back to its recharging unit. When it finishes with a room, Roomba signals its owner to empty the dustbin.
Roomba doesn’t work well on shag or thick-pile carpets. Dog or cat hair can clog its wheels, but that problem usually goes away after a few uses. Roomba goes under most furniture, including beds, but occasionally gets pinned down; then it puts out a distress call. Newer models come with a Virtual Wall device that tells Roomba to stay out of certain places.
In sum, Roomba is hard-working, but dumb. It takes longer to vacuum a room than I would, but I’m not doing the labor, so what do I care?
Roomba has few competitors to date. Elextrolux, the vacuum-cleaner company, demonstrated a similar system in 1997, but only sold the Trilobite in Europe until it recently introduced an $1,800 model in the U.S. market. The Trilobite reportedly has more computing power, but refuses to go near walls. I’d like to give you more details, but the company’s Web site wouldn’t come up (never a good sign).
Helen Greiner, who’s now chairman of iRobot, believes Roomba has been successful because it is inexpensive compared to its value to an owner.
At $150, Roomba certainly seems reasonably priced.
Now I'm wondering whether my wife would prefer an iRobot Roomba or a ring for our anniversary ... in the future?
DARPA moves into the urban environment on Nov. 3, 2007, with its third Grand Challenge. Teams will be announced May 10 (Stanford Racing Team is already working on its entry). The race site will be announced Aug. 10.
iRobot's newest models include the Verro, a pool-cleaning robot, and the Scooba 380 that washes, scrubs and dries floors.