Firm hopes this robot will really clean up
Like pool sweepers, vacuum device roams around home on its own power

By Hiawatha Bray
New York Times Service
Sep. 23, 2002. 01:00 AM

SOMERVILLE, MASS. — iRobot Corp. has sent its robots into the caves of Afghanistan and across the sands of Egypt. Now comes the hard part — getting past the front door of the average home.

So far, the only household robots have been costly toys like Sony's artificial dog Aibo. But iRobot chief executive Colin Angle wants to put robots in millions of homes. He says that will only happen when somebody makes a cheap robot that does something useful.

Angle is hoping that the company's latest product, Roomba, an automated floor cleaner, may fit that bill. Roomba is a six-pound battery-powered disk with just enough intelligence to scour the dust and dirt from carpets and bare floors. A user can turn it on and leave, according to the company, and Roomba will find its way around the room using a combination of infrared sensors and sophisticated navigation software embedded in its tiny brain.

While Roomba isn't nearly as advanced as the company's PackBot military droids, Angle sees the floor cleaner as a far more significant product. If it catches on, he said, it could create a mass market for robots. That could liberate the robotics industry from its dependence of specialized niche markets, and, perhaps, also help transform iRobot from a little-known 100-person firm into a consumer electronics company.

In a demonstration at iRobot's offices, Roomba appeared to work well. But will consumers take a chance on it? Takeo Kanade, professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, has his doubts. "The customers must have the right expectation and balance between the cost and utility," said Kanade. "People's expectations tend to be much higher than what you think.''

For example, Kanade said Roomba users will have to "pre-clean'' the room, by removing objects that would interfere with the device, like shoes or books. He questioned whether potential users will want to be bothered. On the other hand, he praised the $200 price tag and iRobot's emphasis on the consumer market. "In order for the robotics field to move on, it must find a mass-market robotics application," Kanade said. "That's the key.''

iRobot's been in business for about 12 years. MIT graduate Angle co-founded it with his former professor Rodney Brooks, director of MIT's Artificial Intelligence Lab. The company has made a variety of industrial and military robots.

Up to now, the company's proudest creation has been the PackBot, a super tough $50,000 unit that's light enough to be carried into battle on a soldier's back. PackBots were used to scour the wreckage of buildings adjoining the World Trade Center after Sept. 11, and they're also being used by infantrymen to check out Afghan caves for booby traps and dug-in terrorists. Another iRobot machine is presently on location in Egypt with Fox Television and the National Geographic Society, probing unexplored passages inside the Great Pyramid of Khufu.

But iRobot's newest product grew out of efforts in two far less glamorous fields — heavy-duty floor cleaning and talking dolls. "Industrial floor cleaning is a $50 billion a year industry," said Angle, "and it's almost all labour."

S.C. Johnson Commercial Markets Inc. teamed with iRobot to invent a floor-cleaning robot for office buildings and factories. That product never came to fruition, but along the way, iRobot's engineers became specialists in sanitation systems. "We really had to understand the physics of cleaning," said Angle.

At the same time, iRobot worked with toy maker Hasbro to develop My Real Baby, a $100 doll with realistic behaviours and facial expressions, activated by touch and motion. Angle says that experience taught him that for robots to succeed, they had to be priced low enough for ordinary consumers. "We knew we needed not just to clean the floor, but to clean the floor at the right price," he said.

So Roomba's design cuts a few corners. It's made in China of inexpensive plastics. Its brain is a cheap 8-bit microprocessor, feeble compared to today's 32-bit Pentium processors. But then, it doesn't have a lot of thinking to do. It doesn't know whether the floor is dirty, or whether that shiny object it just picked up was a gum wrapper or an engagement ring. All it does is run around on the floor, sweeping and vacuuming.

A software algorithm sets it off on a series of spirals and straight lines, until it bumps into something. An impact sensor sends the Roomba scurrying in a new direction, sweeping along until it hits something else. Angle says that the Roomba will clean a typical room within half an hour, saving its owner hours of cleaning time a week. Sounding more like a vacuum cleaner salesman than an engineer, Angle calls Roomba "four hours of time in a box.''

But the Roomba can't tell when the job is done and shut itself off. Adding sensors that could tell whether the floor was clean would make the Roomba far too costly. The user must switch it off or the battery runs out in about 90 minutes. A recharge takes all night, but iRobot plans to offer a $69 charger that'll re-juice the battery in a couple of hours.

Still, Angle is betting that iRobot has found a way to crack the consumer market. With the holiday shopping season coming up, he'll soon find out if he's right.

Robot Vac Headed for U.S. Stores -- for $200

SOMERVILLE, Mass. (September 24) -- A private company working with artificial intelligence claims it's the first to introduce a robotic vacuum cleaner in the United States. The Roomba Intelligent FloorVac, developed by iRobot Corp., sells for $199.95. It was shipped last week to Brookstone, Hammacher Schlemmer and The Sharper Image, but the robot cleaner was designed for the mass market, said Colin Angle, the company's co-founder and chief executive officer.

The trendy retailers were selected because "it's so important for Roomba to be demonstrated," he said. Likewise, a schedule of 30-minute infomercials developed by Infoworx will begin on six popular cable networks Oct. 5. Ultimately the plan is to approach some of the nation's leading chains.

Angle said Roomba would not compete with the Electrolux Trilobite, selling in Europe for more than $1,300; Hoover's promised robot; and other high-end machines. Roomba is battery-operated and can clean a carpeted room in about 60 minutes, making one pass for large particles and a second for fine dirt. Roomba is manufactured in southern China, where iRobot already is making interactive toys for Hasbro, said Angle.