July 12, 2004 1:08 PM PDT

Robot uses minesweeping technology to clean rugs

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The Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner has a new mission: to seek and destroy.

Burlington, Mass.-based iRobot came out with a new line of robotic vacuum cleaners Monday that, according to the company, feature longer battery life, overall improved performance and an ability to detect dirt.

When the robot drives across a particularly dirty patch of carpet or floor, sensors begin to "listen" to dirt through a vibration detector. The navigation system then steers the robot in circles in the area to eradicate all of the vibration anomalies, at which point the robot resumes its normal course.

Although robotics has not lived up to some of the hype and promise of the last two decades, the market has begun to develop, thanks to improved technology and a change of thinking on how and where robots will be most useful.

Most companies now are no longer trying to develop humanoid companions. Instead, they are developing mobile units that can go into dangerous areas--such as sewer pipes or nuclear power plants--or that can perform repetitive, often menial tasks.

iRobot, which spun out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, develops robots for both types of applications. The company has created a number of reconnaissance robots for the military, including the PackBot, a robotic minesweeper being used in Afghanistan.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Roomba cleans up the living room and, in all likelihood, could not be used by a mad scientist to take over the Earth. Still, the products share a common heritage. The navigation algorithms and the sensor technology that allow the Roomba to avoid falling down stairs or running into obstacles come from the company's government work, according to a spokeswoman.

"It is a minesweeper for dirt," she said.

The first model of the Roomba, which carries a price tag of $199, has sold more than 500,000 units, according to the company.

The new Roomba Discovery sells for $249 and comes equipped with the Dirt Detect technology, a home base that it scurries to for recharging, and a bag that holds three times as much dirt as bags for previous models. The new battery charges in three hours and can last two hours, and design modifications allow the new Roomba to shift more easily from hardwood to carpet.

A scaled-down version called Roomba Red sells for $149.

The vacuums are now available on the iRobot Web site and will be sold in the fall at retailers such as Target, Bed Bath & Beyond, Best Buy, Macy's and Amazon.com.

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iRobot should credit Robert Heinlein
I'm disappointed that I've seen nothing from iRobot that credits Robert Heinlein with the original design of their Roomba back in 1956. In Heinlein's sci-fi novel, "A Door into Summer", an inventor designs and builds a household robot called Flexible Frank that does exactly what Roomba does!

Heck, this new model adds a "new" feature that the Roomba will drive back to its charger for a battery recharge, but Heinlein's floor-cleaner had that in the original design.

Heinlein was a true visionary; he also "invented" the waterbed. He just needed technology to catch up with his ideas.

- a Fan
Posted by pbarnes7 (113 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Not really
Actually Flex Frank was just what the article was saying was
failing in robotics work; a general purpose robot. iRobot
merely did what anyone making successful robots has done
in the past: taken a boring repeatitive task and automated
it using the least amount of intelligence to do the job. This
only makes sense since this allows them to sell it for $150
while a Flex Frank cost the price of a good automobile.
Heinlein did have some good ideas in the book though, we
just haven't caught up with him yet.
Posted by (2 comments )
Link Flag
iRobot should credit Robert Heinlein
I'm disappointed that I've seen nothing from iRobot that credits Robert Heinlein with the original design of their Roomba back in 1956. In Heinlein's sci-fi novel, "A Door into Summer", an inventor designs and builds a household robot called Flexible Frank that does exactly what Roomba does!

Heck, this new model adds a "new" feature that the Roomba will drive back to its charger for a battery recharge, but Heinlein's floor-cleaner had that in the original design.

Heinlein was a true visionary; he also "invented" the waterbed. He just needed technology to catch up with his ideas.

- a Fan
Posted by pbarnes7 (113 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Not really
Actually Flex Frank was just what the article was saying was
failing in robotics work; a general purpose robot. iRobot
merely did what anyone making successful robots has done
in the past: taken a boring repeatitive task and automated
it using the least amount of intelligence to do the job. This
only makes sense since this allows them to sell it for $150
while a Flex Frank cost the price of a good automobile.
Heinlein did have some good ideas in the book though, we
just haven't caught up with him yet.
Posted by (2 comments )
Link Flag
 

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