By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
Roombas, the popular cleaning robots, recently got a problematic update. A software update for the little household vacuums made them meander about as though they were clumsy or intoxicated. The issue invites a look inside Roomba.
Roombas recently received a software update that unintentionally affected their motion, making the little helper robots appear to be tipsy. Although good for a laugh, the issue has put a damper on the household assistants’ effectiveness and caused a public relations hiccup for the brand and the state of home robotics.
The Roomba robot paved the way for affordable, commercially available robots. Modestly priced and built to clean floors, they’ve become a global sensation. Normally, Roomba rolls around a floor looking for dust and dirt to remove. This fills a need for anyone who’s sick of sweeping or vacuuming their floors and would prefer the chore to be delegated elsewhere. Now, some owners may be wondering what’s going on under the hood.
In his video series Robotics, Dr. John Long, Professor of Biology at Vassar College, took apart a Roomba to see just how it works.
Dr. Long said that any autonomous robot has five major components: motors, actuators, controllers, energy supply, and a body. Although motors are self-explanatory, actuators are the devices that actually move the robot. These parts are often joints or wheels. Roomba’s main function is to clean floors, and it uses brushes to do so. The brushes involve both motors and actuators.
“In the brush housing, for the main brushes, we also have a set of motors that are driving these actuators that are doing the actual cleaning, along with another motor […] that’s actually in the body that is driving the vacuum cleaning and pulling the suction through as well,” Dr. Long said.
Meanwhile, Roomba’s on-board computer is on its motherboard, whose array of integrated circuits relay information from sensors, which detect things like walls, to the motors and actuators, telling Roomba when and where to stop and go. This puts Roomba’s motherboard and computer squarely into the “controllers” category.
All these, and Roomba’s battery or energy supply, are housed in its body.
“As with any animal or robot, evolving or designing it for a particular task involves trade-offs—you can’t do everything well,” Dr. Long said. “So while Roomba does its job cleaning floors really, really well, even transitioning from bare floors to carpeting, it’s not built for moving up and over, or down and over steps or drops.
“In fact, it has cliff detector sensors to keep it from tumbling down stairs. So think of the trade-off like this: Clean, but not climb.”
It might not be a huge trade-off, but if a Roomba owner has a house with multiple floors and a set of stairs, they may either find themselves buying a Roomba for each floor of the house or wanting to trade up. Due to this, Roomba’s creator, iRobot, created a larger model called PackBot that can climb stairs by using a track system.
“But there must be trade-offs, right?” Dr. Long asked. “There always are. You can see the difference in size right away; PackBot isn’t going to be cleaning under your furniture. So we can think of the trade-off being the opposite of what we saw for Roomba: climb, but not clean [as much].”
Despite the trade-offs, products like Roomba have made many lives easier—even if they temporarily act like they’ve had one too many.