Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2011/05/02/walking_with_robots/

Welcome your robot overlairds, robots

Nine years of silicon servitude in Scotland

By Bill Ray

Posted in Hardware, 2nd May 2011 08:00 GMT

Silicon servitude In 2002 we got our first domestic robot, a basic Roomba which is long dead now, but since then our household robots have kept the place tidy, and the children in line.

Our first Roomba was a basic cleaner. iRobot's baby didn't even vacuum back then, it just shuffled across the floor pushing the dirt around. But Roomba proved the concept, and convinced us to buy Mowbot, who has been cutting the lawn twice daily since 2004, and ensured that we've never been without domestic help of the silicon kind.

Three little robots

The robots line up to welcome the householder home

We like to consider ourselves the new breed of enlightened robot owners – not hobbyists, or enthusiasts, just enormously lazy people who'd prefer to see something else doing the work. That includes mopping the floor, cutting the grass or letting the cats in, not to mention motivating the children into keeping both room and garden tidy for fear of having their toys eaten by the machines.

Mowbot is the only machine really capable of destroying toys, but he does so with aplomb when the opportunity arises. He cost £1,200 in 2004, and we had to lay a wire around the edge of the garden as well as providing mains power to the hutch to which he returns when the lawn is cut or his batteries are dead.

Mowbot gets back to his hutch by following the wire, but when running he checks regularly to ensure he's within the field generated by the low-voltage pulse going through it, and will shut down if he thinks he's outside the line. We tried pegging the wire down first, using the supplied pegs, which worked in that whenever Mowbot approached the edge of the garden he would lacerate the wire with his spinning blade and shut down in a panic as the field disappeared. So we bought a lawn edger and spent an hour or two burying the wire an inch below the surface – it's just one core of stranded copper and so is easily extended to stretch around the garden where it has lasted almost a decade.

We know Mowbot can destroy toys because sometimes he does, if the children are foolish enough to leave them on the lawn: he'll bounce off walls and larger obstacles, but he'll give them a shove first. It was moments after I predicted he would have no difficulty bouncing off the inflatable paddling pool that it vanished in a swirling maelstrom of plastic and water droplets that was enough to ensure the children kept the garden tidy for a year or two.

Damaged water pistol

The water pistol is rendered safe by a robot who aspires to appear in an article by Lewis Page

For the first few years we carefully packed Mowbot away each winter. When the first snow came down we'd bring him into the garage and remove his batteries until the spring. There used to be a "winter charging kit" but that always seemed excessive, though most years we would have to replace the batteries with another pair of 12v sealed Lead Acid boxes.

That got cheaper when I realised we could get them from Maplin, rather than direct from Mowbot's manufacturer, and cheaper again when the snow came early in 2009 and we just turned off the power and left Mowbot to spend the winter under a blanket of snow. Turns out that leaving him in the snow was superior to bringing him in, allowing the batteries to run for three years rather than just over one.

He has had one set of replacement motors, and two new blades in the last seven years. The UK dealer we bought him off isn't around any more, but he's agricultural enough for basic servicing by a decent lawnmower shop and there's a UK outfit (featuring a really irritating American voiceover) which will keep him lashed together.

And now for something less frightending...

These days Mowbot is a bit battered, his off button has stopped working and a touch of senility makes him mow the lawn to his own schedule rather than the one programmed into him. That worries us slightly, but, unlike the Daleks, Mowbot is unlikely to gain the ability to magically climb stairs, so not really scary just yet.

Mowbot's house

The supplied hutch was swept away in the wind, Oz style, but without taking the robot on a magical journey to find the Wizard.

Even less frightening is Scooba, a more-recent addition to our domestic stable. We had him imported from America in 2007, though you can buy one in the UK these days. Made by iRobot, like Roomba, Scooba mops floors rather than vacuuming them. He works very well on laminated (sealed) floors, and lino, and slightly less well on tiles, but whatever the surface he needs the room cleared and empty before he starts.

Scooba gets filled with (ideally warm) water and some special cleaning fluid (which is neither expensive nor quickly consumed). He does a quick brush round (though if the floor needs it then Roomba is better skilled for the preparatory work) and then spreads water over the floor. That completed he drops a squeegee blade and wipes the water up again, hopefully taking most of the mess with it.

Scooba works well, at least as well as a manual mop, though probably not as well as a manual mop applied with vigour and enthusiasm. The water that comes out of him is certainly suitably muddy, so dirt is being lifted and the floor feels cleaner afterwards.

He's also getting a little long in the tooth, and had to have a new battery this year (at £60 – no cheapo Maplin alternative for Scooba), but his performance is undiminished and the floors remain clean.

One robot not pictured, or so far mentioned, is our robotic cat flap. That's mainly because the only thing it can do is unlock on the approach of the appropriate cat(s), but it is noteworthy as a reminder to keep one's cats upgraded with the latest cyberware.

An interloper was stealing food from the kitchen and generally scaring our cowardly cats into half the house, so we bought a flap (£60) keyed to their implanted identity chips. But when we tried to configure the flap we were alarmed to discover that the implanted chips, with their 12-digit ID code, had been supplanted by a new version with 16 digits. As a result both cats had to be upgraded (£25 per cat), though thankfully removal of the original chip wasn't required.

Now the battery-powered flap only unlocks when our cats approach, allowing them to traipse in with muddy paws, birds, mice and the occasional rabbit, which (once the corpse has been removed) can then all be cleaned up by the star of the show – Roomba.

He's our third Roomba, the original model having died after a year, and the second lasting four more years. This one is 100 per cent replaceable - he comes apart like a kit and every part can be ordered online so (in theory) he should last forever. So far he's had one new battery, a new front sensor and brush set, but despite that he's a marvellous thing.

We don't let him come out on a timer, that option exists but our house isn't tidy enough to make it practical. One needs to tidy a room first (or frighten the children into doing so by reminding them what happened to the paddling pool) but then he can be let loose and will vacuum happily (under the watchful eye of the aforementioned cats) until he decides the job is complete or his battery runs low. When that happens he plays a happy tune and shuts down, unless he can see his charging base nearby.

This new Roomba has more suction and better brushes, but most importantly the filter is hinged so it can be emptied with two hands, rather than requiring three as with previous models. Sadly he also sits slightly higher on the carpet, making the carefully-selected sofas just too low for him to slide under as intended, though he still tries and sometimes plays his sad tune when unable to extract himself.

iRobot developed the first Roomba to raise money and credibility so it could get into the far-more-lucrative military robot business, but what makes Roomba, Scooba and Mowbot useful is not how clever they are but how much they achieve with such limited intelligence.

While Dyson repeatedly demonstrates prototypes that scan the room with sonar, and Electrolux charges a thousand pounds for their Trilobite bristling with sensors, iRobot's Roomba bounces off walls at random while Mowbot repeatedly cuts the same grass and calls it "mulching" to avoid having to pick up the bits. None of our robots is efficient, a human could do the job in half the time – but speaking as that human I'm glad I don't have to. ®