Living With Robots — The Indoor Edition


For some time now I have been living with robots — and it has been interesting to say the least. Outdoors the grass is being cut (after the snow all melts) by a wonderful Lawnbott Evolution (more about this in a future post) and indoors the crud is kept somewhat under control with Roomba. Over the years I have had several of the I-Robot vacuum robots. I started with the Discovery model, which appealed to me not only because it would clean my floors but that it could be scheduled so the task of shoveling out could be automated. A wonderful idea that was one less thing  for a single parent to worry about. Discovery did a nice job — I eventually bought a second one to keep the upstairs clean, the two robots creeping out during the day to work and then going back to their charger.  I would have liked to have one do my sons room, but the bold black and white carpet he had drove the infrared cliff sensors crazy. It was just pitiful watching the thing creep around on the rug, crawling back every time it encountered the black ‘cliff’.  And just as with a regular vacuum one has to cleanout the dust bin every so often — once a week was more than enough. (Did I mention that at this time I had a dog and a cat?) But basically the Discovery models just did their job.

Much encouraged by this experience I bought a “Dirt Dog” when they came out — cleaning up the garage after a woodworking project was not my strong suit, so this seemed like a gift from the gods. And mostly it was, until the cliff sensors started to crud up and the brushes would jam on any screws or large chunks it found under the bench. Why is it, I would ask no one in particular, that if a device has to die it do so in the most inaccessible space? Eventually one learns to sweep up before turning “Dirt Dog” loose — it seems pathetic but that is the limit of the machinery. And the cliff sensors? They need to be blown out every use (with compressed air) to keep the thing running ok. It still does a great job but I recognize that it is more of a finish treatment than a substitute for my own mess cleaning.

Eventually, some of the glued on parts of Discovery started to come undone. I-Robot had released the 500 series (new and improved!) that promised to handle cords and rug tassels more gracefully (which the Discovery did not). So I gave in to weakness and exchanged one of my Discovery units for a new 560. Initially, it was wonderful (mostly). The infrared ‘wall’ units that keep the robot out of some areas were redesigned — now could be either walls or something new called lighthouses. This is supposed to keep Roomba in one area for a while, then allow it into the next space and so on — sounded like a good idea but I never could get it to work right, so just use as ‘walls’. The neat thing is that these units turn on when Roomba is active — the ‘walls’ for Discovery had to be programmed separately, the new approach is much better. And the new unit would clean rug edges gracefully, although cords are still a source of problems. And it was quiet compared to Discovery and pulled an amazing amount of dirt up — that was the first use…

But reality sets in. With a dog and a cat there is always hair to be collected. To be sure, the 500 series picks it up just fine and scrapes it off the brush into the waste box. But the new design of the brushes also causes the hair to collect almost everywhere else — wrapped around the shaft and between the brush and the supports. When this happens, Roomba stops and gives a plaintive two beeps. Problem is, this is guaranteed to happen almost every time it goes out — never a problem with Discovery. It is nice to be told that there is a problem with the brushes and to clean them — what is not so nice is that this is an every run issue, regardless of whether the unit had been disassembled and cleaned before the start. Complaining to I-Robot support produced the response that there was a problem with the brush unit and they would send me a replacement — which they did almost 12 weeks later (guess the factory in China was backed up…). The new brush unit looked just like the old one (hummm… internal changes?) and worked just like the old one, not good. Responding to their previous emails with ‘didnt work’ produces no response, no surprise there. Guess the case was ‘closed’ when they ordered replacement parts for me, why should they care to follow up to see if the cure worked?

Anyhow, today I dismantled the unit and cleaned it out completely, as I do every two or three days. If I am lucky, maybe it will do the 900 square feet of out main floor without choking. It did yesterday, much to my surprise. The Discovery gets turned loose downstairs to cleanup — it can work without supervision. But not the Roomba 560 — when it is out I need to check regularly to make sure it is not in trouble, fix it when it is, and be sure to restart it in exactly the same place. Why am I doing this, I ask? The new and improved cleans better than the old one it replaced but needs constant attention. So as an automated way of keeping the house clean the 500 series is a total failure — my wife just ignores it and pushes her vacuum cleaner around. The 500 does not like dark rugs so we have to do one room by hand anyhow.  I still hold out hope that SOMEBODY will offer a robot vacuum that will just do its job with reasonable maintenance, but that definitely is not the Roomba 560. Too bad, they had some good ideas that just need some work.  Pity the sizzle is easier to sell than the steak. I wish them luck, but maybe not with my nickel anymore.

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