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iRobot unveils new Roomba auto-vacuums

Never mind that - where's my bloody robot butler?

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iRobot, maker of military robots and autonomous floor cleaner units, have announced a new line of "Roomba" auto-vacuums.

According to the company, the latest 500 series suck-bots have "raised the IQ of home care".

Roomba - now with raised IQ. Apparently.

The basic Roomba 530, available now online in America for $300, can apparently clean "up to three standard rooms" - presumably of not more than standard grubbiness - before it has to head back to the plug-in "Home Base" charging unit. The 530 comes with two "Virtual Wall" infrared beam barrier units which can be used to confine the dirt-guzzling droid within a desired area. These are to prevent a bumbling droid from wandering off and abandoning rooms partially cleaned; or perhaps bolting into the street in a doomed attempt to clean up the world.

In describing Roomba products, iRobot makes much talk about "wireless" technology, which could imply the use of radio; but in fact its kit appears to use only infrared. Once a machine is out of sight of its charging base, it will find it again only if its software takes it back into line-of-sight before the battery runs out - and that will depend on the layout of the home and the placement of virtual walls.

Moving up from the 530 to the $350 560, you get "Lighthouse technology" - beacon gear which "ensures the most efficient room-to-room cleaning because it confines Roomba to one room until that room is thoroughly vacuumed before allowing Roomba to move on to the next room."

This means the droid will keep a "Lighthouse" infrared beacon in sight, repeatedly cleaning the room - or those parts of it from which you can see the lighthouse - until it detects a low amount of dirt underneath it, rather than roaming its entire permitted range from the start.

The extra $50 for a 560 also adds on-board scheduling, allowing you to pre-programme the droid to clean up at certain times without being told.

At the top of the range, the $400 570 model features a "wireless command centre" allowing line-of-sight remote control and even more finicky schedule options, plus some kind of better brush fit.

One might say the prices are perhaps a little high for fairly basic infrared-controlled gear; the toy industry wouldn't dare charge anything like so much for this kind of tech. Of course, most toys don't include a flat, battery powered vacuum cleaner - not even one that needs several passes to do a decent job.

It's easy to criticise the Roomba and its floor-washing, sweeping, and pool-cleaning stablemates. But it's also easy to like iRobot for staying in the difficult household-machinery market rather than just giving up and focusing exclusively on the easy, lucrative war pork with its PackBot and other military-security lines. Killer robots are all very well, but some of us are tired of waiting for our goddam robot butlers, already.

"This company is not a one-trick pony," CEO Colin Angle told Reuters today.

"iRobot... is going to be delivering very, very cool, labour-saving robots for the home."

Tantalisingly, iRobot says two new domestic robots will be unveiled on 27 September and they won't clean floors, mow lawns or - dammit! - work as butlers.

Bartenders, maybe? You could build a bar-bot. Although mixing drinks is one of the more enjoyable home tasks, for many - it would be rather sad for the robot to be having all the fun while the humans have to clean the lavatory.

A droid servant that could load and empty the dishwasher would be good: though it would probably be cheaper, simpler, and more effective to just replace all the kitchen cupboards with dishwashers. A robot which could do the ironing, dusting, clean the bathroom, change fuses, reorganise the attic etc is, sadly, unlikely.

Robot aficionados will just have to wait until September to find out. ®

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