Almost as soon as the term ‘robot’ was coined in 1920 the public dreamed of a future where mundane domestic tasks would be obligingly tackled by tin-coated household helpers who’d cook, clean and look after us. They’d be available day and night to respond to their master’s every whim and they wouldn’t need to take evenings or weekends off to rest. Only in the last few years has robot design begun to deliver on some of the promise of the 1920s, but quietly and relatively cheaply, robots are making their way in to our homes, and they’re here to help.
iRobot’s first products were designed for the serious business of locating mines and space exploration, but in 2002 they launched their first cleaning robot, the Roomba. The Roomba has grown from what was almost a novelty product to a full range of autonomous helpers to keep your home ship-shape.
The Roomba 866 is mid-range in the Roomba line-up, but they all look quite similar. I unpacked the robot and it is surprisingly compact looking. It’s roughly the size of a large steering wheel and weighs less than 4kg. It’s just over 9 centimetres high, and that height is crucial to how it operates around your home. Installing the iRobot is straightforward and requires you to just plug in the included base-station which is where the robot charges. When the robot is fully charged a battery indicator tells you it’s ready to go and you can start cleaning immediately.
Operating the robot could not be simpler and the large Clean button on the face of the robot just needs to be pressed twice to start a cleaning cycle. The robot beeps to let you know it’s about to start and it disengages itself from the base-station. Watching it at work is fascinating. It appears to scope out the room figuring the size and where furniture is so it can clean more efficiently. It doesn’t vacuum like a human does, it’s far to clever for that. It zig-zags around the room, cleaning but getting to know the layout of the room as it goes. On the underside of the robot is a small three pronged ‘side brush’. As it gets close to a piece of furniture or skirting board you can see this spinning quickly to drag dust and dirt out from difficult to reach areas and I even lost track of it as it cleaned under beds, cupboards and tables.
The iRobot is equipped with sensors that help it avoid bumping in to objects, and it’s also equipped with ‘cliff sensors’ so you can safely use it upstairs without it taking a tumble. For a device that’s so simple to use, the technology on board is remarkable. I noticed as it passed over a dirty patch on the floor it appeared to notice and circled the spot cleaning with extra vigour and the ‘Dirt Detect’ light illuminated on the device. This cleaning technique is a stage process that uses agitation, brushing and suction and after 20 minutes it left my wooden sitting-room floor spotless and was equally as impressive on carpeted bedroom floors and rugs.
It is a little noisy and although it does a brilliant job on pet hairs it could give pets a bit of a surprise if it meets them in the hall. There are iRobot accessories that let you create an invisible barrier around door entrances or specific areas like pet bowls, but at the price these and the optional remote control could make it a more attractive buy.
Of course a robot vacuum is a real luxury but it’s sturdy, cleans wonderfully with elbow grease that I never had and when I listen to it trundling back to it’s base-station and putting itself on back on charge I do think that the future of domestic life may already be here and it’s spotless.