Waiting for a better Roomba – iRobot is nuts

I’ve written about the robot vacuums called Roomba in the past, and my wife and I have been Roomba owners for quite a while. While we loved it when it workd, we no longer use our old Roomba Discovery because it died. After spending a lot of time cleaning and repairing the thing, it finally developed problems that required real service. The problem is there isn’t any from iRobot, who make Roomba. We can buy a new one, but they don’t service them. It’s either that, or buy a $70 battery and hope that fixes it.

So, even though we now live in a larger ranch house and a robot vacuum would be a great solution, we haven’t been using ours. Recently Susan and I were talking, and it came up, and I thought I would go see what iRobot had been up to.

They’ve gone nuts.

They have ELEVEN models. Eleven. Not only do they have way too many models, it’s very hard to tell them apart. Mostly it seems to be which accessories come with them or perhaps battery life. It’s not easy to figure it out.

They now go up to $550. For a vacuum with a life expectancy of perhaps a year and a half, with no ability for anyone to repair it when it breaks, which it will. This is crazy. It was a crazy price for a Dyson, which will last decades and surely is repairable by someone – maybe even Dyson. For a disposable appliance it’s rediculous.

They’re still fragile. Reading the reviews on Amazon, it doesn’t seem that the many design flaws of the original products have been resolved. They still need to be emptied after every use and frequent maintenance, and still have certain bits that die an early and frequent death.

The good news is that they offer a model at only $129. Even though that’s still more than I’m willing to spend on a disposable appliance, it does show they’re at least considering a reasonably priced product. They also now offer a wider array of spare parts, at highish prices, but at least they’re available.

iRobot: You need to make these things last, make them repairable so they’re not disposable, or make them cheap enough that we just don’t care when they die. My vote is to make them repairable. Preferably by anyone who’s willing to read a service manual and buy the replacement parts.

Still, it would be nice to have one with our kitchen being as large as it is. Maybe the local batteries plus can make a replacement battery…

Roomba’s eye view – why didn’t I think of this?

I’m finding a lot of folks who have put cameras on their roombas. This is one of those things that I feel like I should have thought of 😎 Preparing for parenthood is making me a little soft in the head. There are some videos on some of the pages: Andy’s Waste of Bandwidth,
Roombacam, and Roombastuff. These are all pretty darn cool.

Looking at the Curtronics page, I’m thinking that with a smaller digital camera (they all have “movie mode now”) like my Canon SD10, this could be kind of fun. It would be reall neat if there was a way to mount it low enough that you could see under furntiture that Roomba couldn’t get under – might end the mystery of any number of lost objects.

Anyway, have a look and enjoy!

Roomba – a fragile machine…

My wife and I have really enjoyed having Roomba around, it really does a nice job of keeping our floors clean. But we have found that it is a pretty fragile device.

First, it needs pretty frequent cleaning. This is not so bad – I take down to the workshop and blast it with air for a while, and all the sensors are clean and it goes back to being it’s efficient self. The main brush gets wrapped in hair, along with every other rotating part, and they need to be unwound from time to time. This I really don’t mind because it’s fixing something, and I enjoy fixing things. But that’s not the real problem.

Second, and the real problem, is that it seems to break pretty easily. If you scan the Roomba discussion boards, you will read about the death spiral, which in our case was more like the line-dance of death. The machine clearly thinks it’s stuck when it’s not, and keeps trying to free itself. When this started to happen to our unit my heart sunk because I had read that the fix is to send it back to iRobot. So I took it to the shop and cleaned it very thoroughly. Somewhere in that process I learned that the little yellow bearing on the main brush had disappeared. Figuring the system must work by sensing motor current, and figuring the missing bearing was certainly increasing friction and current, I called iRobot and begged for new bearings. They were very kind and sent a new set, although it took a couple of weeks. I put in the new bearings just sure it would fix things. It didn’t. I recleaned all the sensors, and checked everything again, but still it didn’t work right.

So, as panic set in and both of us struggled to deal with the possibility of going back to the stone age (remember when you had to push a vacuum around?) we began to think of ways out of this. We’d bought the unit at The Home Depot, and we still had the receipt. A quick look online showed we could still return the unit. Phew! An hour later and the little tyke was again cleaning our house. The folks at The Home Depot were kind enough to return & repurchase the unit, so we regained a 90-day return period.

A lot of folks suggest getting these units at Hammacher-Schelmmer because of their lifetime guarantee, but that means sending it back. Roomba is just big enough to be a pain in the butt to send back. I think if our first unit went bad in two months, our second will be hard pressed to make it much further, and who wants to send a 12lb package 4 times a year? I figure as long as THD will allow us to return & repurchase every three months, the unit’s fragility shouldn’t be much of a problem.

I’m hoping that as more folks buy these units, the fragility of them will drive iRobot to make a more robust unit. This product is such a joy to have around when it’s working, that when it breaks it has a real psychological impact – leaving a door wide open for a competitor who can invent a machine that cleans as well, but lasts longer. C’mon iRobot – figure out a way to make this thing last longer! Better yet, sell (cheaply, please) a service manual and rebuild kit. I would happily fix the thing myself as long as I know how and can get the right parts.

Ten things (ok, eleven) that would improve Roomba

  1. When Roomba is done with a room, and cannot find it’s charging base, how about it parks near a virtual wall instead of just dying under a bed?
  2. How about adding a photocell, and when Roomba cannot find a base or virtual wall, at least it parks where light is falling on it? This combined with #3 could create “clean at night” & “clean during the day” modes.
  3. Make the front wheel swivel – there’s already a few reports of that non-swiveling wheel scratching floors. Ball roller.
  4. Make a continuous clean mode – clean, go back to charger, when charged clean again and so on. With a large house and multiple chargers, why not have the little sucker run all the time?
  5. A heavier base would keep Roomba from moving the charging base around when trying to dock.
  6. Making the base also a virtual wall (say, shooting to both sides) would add little cost, and convenient functionality.
  7. A magnetic bar on the front of the unit would keep it from digesting screws, tacks and other dangerous items.
  8. How about a “abort and go back to base” function on the remote – we often set Roomba loose, but need to curtail its run.
  9. Make it quieter – it doesn’t have to be silent, just quiet enough to stand with the TV on.
  10. If you can make it bump into things more quietly, all the better. Right now when it hits something it sounds like it’s really clobbering it.
  11. Why not include an inexpensive sheet of stickers – eyes, noses, mouths, etc. to personalize with? Kind of corny, yes, but also fun.

A real robot, in my house?

Robots get a lot of attention – between the robot wars on cable TV, news articles on police and military robots, and the occasional robot vacuum or lawnmower in a mail order catalog there’s a lot of folks out there who are taking credit for making useful (or at least really cool) robots. Are we finally able to buy a real-world robot appliance that does what it’s supposed to do?

I have to admit that every time I’ve seen a robot vacuum in a catalog I’ve been sorely tempted to buy one. But I know the technology is new, and my non-palatial house probably isn’t suited to a device that clearly needs wide-open spaces. As for the lawnmowers, well, at over $1000 that’s a pretty tough nut to swallow. Still, the prospect of technology at my beck and call, particularly to do menial chores reliably is really heady stuff.

Then we were at Home Depot the other day and I saw a display for Roomba. Now I’ve seen these units in catalogs lots of times, but I always put it in the expensive-gadget-that-probably-doesn’t-work category and moved on. Seeing it in person, however, changed things. Looking at this thing zipping around a small section of hardwood floor really captivated me. My wife scoffed, took firm hold of my arm, and led me away.

The next day I went out and bought one while my wife was at work.

I fully expected to unpack the thing, see it zip around for a bit, and then watch as it failed to deal with the geography of our little house, gagged on a carpet or as some other fatal flaw revealed itself only to have to return it. After a few days, it’s still a keeper. The thing actually works. But, one has to understand Roomba’s mission in order to see it in the proper light.

Will it totally replace our regular vacuum? Nope. It doesn’t really remove the need to vacuum by hand occasionally either. When you look at the unit, and more importantly when you hear it, it’s obvious that it has limited power. A regular vacuum’s power is limited only by the circuit rating of the nearest wall socket, and the manufacturers know that you’re not vacuuming every day, and that when you do vacuum you expect the machine to pick up all the dirt in one pass (or at most two). Therefore, a regular vacuum has got gobs of power.

Roomba, on the other hand, is really designed with a different use in mind. It’s not intended to give the super-sucking deep cleaning the old-style vacs deliver, it’s intended to be used every day. Not only that, but the way it ensures it has covered the entire room is through overkill. It doesn’t know where it’s going or remember where it’s been. Its intelligence is limited to making good guesses where to turn when it hits something, and detecting when it’s stuck and how to get unstuck. The rest of the time it’s just pinging from one obstacle to another. In the process of covering every spot, most spots get covered many, many times. From many directions. So, while a regular vac has to have the power to suck up the dirt in a just a few passes, from only one direction, Roomba dutifully goes over everything again and again. In this kind of scenario, Roomba’s limited power has a lot of chances to get the dirt.

The result is pretty much the same as with a big vac – this little guy picks up the dirt. As it happens, my skeptical wife made me Swiffer a room that the Roomba had just cleaned to see what it missed, and while the Swiffer cloth was not pristine, it was still pretty darn clean. The real value isn’t in Roomba’s ability to clean as well as you would with a regular vac, although the manufacturer claims it does. The real value is that it will clean when you don’t want to – you can turn it on as you walk out the door to go to work – every day.

I had figured I’d have to spend a lot of time “Roomba-proofing” the house, but that wasn’t really the case. Yes, papers and other small items have to be picked up, but it bounces around shoes, books and other larger items just find. Cords are also not much of a problem as long as they’re near a wall. Rugs with tassles on them are another story, but no vacuum deals with them well.

Earlier I said that Roomba just bounced from one obstacle to another, but really it’s much more sophisticated than that. I looked at a recent patent awarded to iRobot, the folks who make Roomba, and found that the unit not only can tell which side it impacts an obstacle on, but at what angle. Depending on the angle, and what it’s hit recently, Roomba decides whether to follow an edge (which might carry it into another room) or rebound normally. If it doesn’t hit anything in a given distance, it turns as a guard against slipping wheels. The combination of switching between rebound and edge-following mode, along with varying the angle of rebound are some of the things it does to ensure complete coverage of a room or set of connected rooms.

There are more expensive vacuums out there that actually map the room, and keep track of where they’ve been, and make a sensible path around the room. That’s the way some folks expect Roomba to work – because it makes sense from a human point of view because it’s efficient. Efficiency on the robot’s part is irrelevant. Efficiency of my time and money is what’s important. I think the beauty of Roomba is that it does its job with minimal intelligence and no mapping, which keeps it’s price reasonable. If I don’t have to wait for it, I don’t care how long it takes to do the job so long as it gets done. So in the end Roomba doesn’t save me any less time than a more complicated model would.

To me, that is what really useful robotics are all about. We don’t need machines that do exactly what we do, we just need them to do what we need done.