Saturday, January 13, 2007

Robotics comes to the home front


Well, this holiday season I took a leap into robotics to actually save me time and perspiration with one of the more boring domestic chores, vacuuming. My husband and I were wandering around Sears and I lingered a while in the vacuum section since the old Kirby my husband found for me years ago weighs a bunch and as I grow older I find it more and more of a struggle to pack the old beast upstairs or from one room to another. As I walked past all the latest models I started daydreaming about the robotic vacuums I had heard about but thought to myself I would not find one of those in Sears. Lo and behold I turned a corner and there stacked up against a pillar was a shipment of Roombas - a robotic vacuum from iRobot. I was astounded to actually see one and the sales representative happily took out the rather battered looking demo and set it to the task of cleaning the rug. As I watched it swirling about, it's dirt detection light flashing like a miniature K-mart blue light special I resolved to give the little guy a try. So I shelled out the $299 (I took the more expensive Scheduler model that lets me program the time of its cleaning routines) and packed it home.

I followed the manual's recommendation to observe the Roomba in its first task to see if it had problems with any particular obstacle in the room or caught on rug fringe or draperies and found that it did have problems with some of my bedroom furniture with curved feet. However, they supply you with "virtual walls" to help the Roomba skirt these kinds of obstacles. The Roomba comes with two virtual wall units but I think I need two more so will try to snag a couple of them up on Ebay for less than the usual retail price of $29.95 each. My experiment with the Roomba in the living room went very well as did my trial in the kitchen and dining room. I thought to myself what I would really like is a Roomba that scrubs kitchen floors. I went up on the iRobot website and was thrilled to see that the Scooba does just that! I have resolved to get one of those too.

I now have worked the Roomba into my daily routine. I have it clean the living room one day then the kitchen and dining room the next day. When I rearrange the furniture in the bedroom I will add it to the Roomba queue. On Saturday I set the Roomba to the task of vacuuming my home office.

Overall, I'm very pleased with this technological inroad into the domestic front and I doubt that my Roomba will instigate any plots against me with my home theater system or my steam cleaner. I see that iRobot now offers a "Create-a-bot" programmable model for any budding robotics wannabees. Now that's what I call an interactive educational experience:

iRobot Unveils Programmable Robot

Developers and Students Can Now Create Useful Robots Quickly and Easily

2007 INTERNATIONAL CES, LAS VEGAS, Jan. 8, 2007 – iRobot Corp. (NASDAQ: IRBT) today unveiled iRobot® Create™, an affordable, programmable robot designed for aspiring roboticists, advanced high-school and college students, and serious robot developers. Create comes pre-assembled, so developers can design new robots without having to build a mobile robot from scratch. The latest robot is available at www.irobot.com and pricing starts at $129.99.

“Innovators dream of creating useful robots, but they often get bogged down with designing a mobile platform that works,” said Helen Greiner, co-founder and chairman of iRobot. “iRobot Create fills a need in the robot industry for a standard, durable hardware platform on which to rapidly develop new, innovative mobile robots.”

Create is based on the core technology of iRobot Roomba®, the vacuuming robot that is cleaning millions of homes worldwide, and is compatible with Roomba’s rechargeable batteries, remote control and other accessories.

With Create, developers can now begin designing new robot applications out of the box. This new platform provides access to robot sensors and actuators via an open interface. Create also features standard connections for electronics and threaded mounting holes that allow users to secure their inventions to the robot, streamlining the integration of third-party electronics such as sensors, cameras, arms and wireless connections.

A variety of methods and programming languages can be used to control Create. Beginners can observe the robot’s behavior in one of ten demonstration modes, or they can program the robot directly by downloading short scripts with any basic terminal program. More advanced users can write programs for completely autonomous robot behavior in C or C++ using the iRobot Command Module. Developers can also create custom software and interact with Create using a variety of methods including Microsoft Robotics Studio, a Windows-based development toolkit.

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