Roomba Scheduler Ups the Home Robot Ante
By Jim Bray
You’ve probably seen those little manhole cover-like robot
vacuum cleaners advertised. They promise to end the drudgery of
pushing or pulling a vacuum around your home by zipping around
Chez Vous and doing it for you.
Regular readers (those who eat sufficient bran) of this column
may remember that I tried one of them, the Roomba Red, about a
year ago and thought it was a neat idea that had some potential
as long as you don’t have a lot of furniture or wires and
cables in your room and you live on a single storey. It did a pretty
good job of vacuuming, but the main drawback was that you still
had to turn it on and off which mean that, even though you didn’t
actually have to vacuum, you still had to supervise.
Well now, iRobot has come up with a new model that really ups
the ante on that earlier model, and it addresses most of my concerns.
It is far from perfect, but it’s a big step forward – and
it's pretty nifty.
It's the Roomba Scheduler, a more self sufficient robot than the
Red, and it'll operate any time of day or any day of the week without
you having to give it a conscious thought. You don’t even
need to be home any more for it to get your vacuuming done, because
the Scheduler also comes with a remote control/timer and a base
station that serves as a battery charger and home for the little
cyber-critter to park in - kind of like an open air dog house for
You also get two virtual walls that use infrared light to warn the
robot away from areas like staircases or open doors – or sections
of the room that may have an abundance of wires or breakables at floor
level – in short, places through which you don’t want it
poking its flat little dome.
And be darned if it doesn’t work! Most of the time, anyway.
I set it up in a big and relatively clear room in our basement where
it would have a fairly free rein to roam around and work its magic.
Then I programmed it – and the virtual walls – to come on
twice a week whether I was around to watch or not. Of course, I stuck
around to see if it would work, but I didn’t have to. Call it
Like clockwork, the Roomba woke up at the appointed hour and went scurrying
around the room, sniffing out and sucking up animal hair and the rest
of the stuff that mysteriously appears in our otherwise wonderfully
immaculate home. It’s fascinating to watch the little critter
zipping around, bouncing off walls and obstacles as it works. You could
almost swear that its movements are random, and that it changes direction
only based on when it runs into something, but then all of a sudden
it stops in the center of the room as if it suddenly remembered an area
that it hadn’t covered yet, spins around, and heads off in search
of new crud to capture.
When the robot has done its dirty duty, it goes back to its docking
station, parks itself there and goes to sleep, its battery being re-charged,
until the next appointed hour.
We even got some unexpected comedy relief thanks to the reaction from
our cats as the droid started heading for them. They didn’t know
whether to run or attack! If only I’d been testing a camcorder
at the time, I’d have sent it to America’s Funniest Home
Videos and been a shoo-in for the ten grand, at least. After a while
they became very blasé about the Roomba, but it was entertaining
while it lasted.
The Scheduler does a pretty good job of getting on with its business,
too. I set up a virtual wall to keep it from heading off into our workshop
(where it would be sucked into a black hole of junk and never be seen
again), and one time when I was watching it work it got high centered
on the edge of the carpet. I figured I’d have to bail it out,
but darned if the little droid didn’t shift around, hike itself
up, spin around, and generally gyrate as if it were alive until it finally
freed itself and headed back onto its appointed rounds as if nothing
had happened. It was impressive.
It isn’t perfect, of course. Another time, at the same location
(after I had moved the virtual wall to see what would happen) it seemed
to get confused and started acting like a Star Trek android about to
blow up after Captain Kirk had argued it into a logical conundrum. I
picked it up, placed it back on the carpet, patted it on its virtual
bum to make it feel better, and off it went again, happy as a robot
vacuum can be, on the prowl for more dirt.
And another time it appeared to have decided to go on strike. I don’t
know how far into its cleaning cycle it was, but when I went down to
check on it (if it didn’t do its job I wasn’t going to reward
it with any recharging!) it was just sitting there like a sullen and
spoiled child. I restarted it and all appeared normal, except that the
incident was repeated twice more before I gave up and took it to its
base station for a time out. Hey, don’t mess with humans, robot!
That’s when I pulled out the manual to see if it had any advice.
Well, the manual sucks just about as much as the vacuum does, though
in a less satisfactory way, but it did inform me that you’re supposed
to clean the brushes and the like after each use (which makes the machine
a little less attractive), and I hadn’t cleaned it at all – except
for emptying the dirt canister – since first activating it.
As it turns out, the brush and other assorted works were wound around
with hair and stuff, and this appeared to be giving the Roomba fits.
It took about ten minutes to get all the gunk off the workings, though
it would probably only have taken five if I’d used a pair of scissors
to cut at the stuff rather than tuggin' and cussin'.
Another time it started up and appeared to be drunk, moving around
in a couple of circles before chirping plaintively and passing out.
Repeated prods didn't help, so I contacted Roomba customer service.
They "tut-tutted" nicely and told me they'd send out a repair
thingy with instructions.
A couple of weeks later a package arrived with a little device that
let me zap the Roomba's digital thalamus – and after that it worked
fine again. As of this writing I'm still using it, though I now need
to replace the remote's batteries which, in my never humble opinion
ran down too quickly.
I've had a couple of times when the Scheduler seems to ignore one of
the virtual walls (or perhaps I hadn't set it properly) and get tangled
up in the wires under my desk. Fortunately, rather than tearing the
wires apart it shuts down and waits patiently to be rescued, like a
kitten stuck on an ice floe. Untangling the Roomba is a lot easier than
untangling the power bar of our big built in vacuum, too, which is nice.
Even though the Roomba doesn’t have a very big dirt receptacle
I was surprised how much stuff it actually pulled out of our carpet.
I’m not sure I’d want this droid if I lived in a real pig
sty such as my bachelor pad was before my wife saved me, but for a condo
or a place where you just want something that can do maintenance cleaning
it’s a pretty nifty solution.
Roomba recommends you keep the dirt receptacle empty, and I've been
dumping it after every second session, which works out to once a week.
It's an easy process that only takes a few seconds.
The Scheduler is a big improvement over the Red, at least so far as
its automation and extra virtual wall are concerned. It is far from
perfect, but it does work as advertised and can do a nice job under
the right circumstances.
And now that you don’t need to even think about it for the most
part, it qualifies as a real, practical home robot.
The Roomba Scheduler sells for about $330.
Who’d have thunk you could have your own R2D2 for a price like
Jim Bray's technology columns are distributed by the TechnoFILE and Mochila Syndicates. Copyright Jim Bray.
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