Mind / Iron
by Bryan Bergeron, Editor ;
Practical Service Robotics
If you’re a robotics enthusiast, you’ve probably
at least considered picking up one of the robot
vacuum cleaners. I have. But I haven’t purchased
one because I haven’t found a robot vacuum
cleaner – the most popular form of service robot
on the planet – that can replace a handheld vac.
I also suspect that many consumers share my
sentiments, as well.
My requirements for a home robot vacuum
cleaner are simple enough – the vac simply has to
work like the litter cleanup robots on Star Wars. If you recall, the small, black
robots scurried about in search of litter. When a robot spotted something in
the hallway, it would suck it up and then scurry away in search of the next
object. Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it?
I want a robot that will recognize that I dropped a bowl of popcorn on
the carpet, head to the sight of the disaster, suck up the popcorn, and then
return to the charging station. As a bonus, if the vac happened to scoop up
a coin, transistor, or earring, I’d like the valuable stored in a separate bin in
the vacuum’s body.
However, in my recent survey of what’s available on the market, nothing
came close to my ideal. The old standby — the iRobot Roomba — can swirl
around a room for an hour before happening upon a pile of crumbs.
The more expensive robot vacs such as the Neato XV- 11 and Samsung
Navibot excel at navigation – meaning they can avoid obstacles and almost
guarantee full floor coverage. However, even the $650 Navibot can’t spot a
fresh spill, head directly to the area, clean it up, and then move out of sight.
No, for quick spills, robot vacs still can’t hold their own against a $35
So, what’s the holdup? Why can’t one of the big robotics manufacturers
come up with software and a hardware platform that can effectively
replicate a human-directed hand vac? Think about how you’d go about
devising sensors and the control program for such a vac. One option would
be to scan the rooms with ceiling-mounted cameras. You’d have to program
the system to ignore people, pets, and toys. There’s also the issue of
changes in lighting with time of day. Another potential problem is how to
recognize – and ignore – spilled liquids. You don’t want your robot vac
making a mess by rolling in spilled chocolate milk or red wine.
You might also consider a sensor that’s specific for organic material.
Perhaps a sensor that’s sensitive to methane – produced by rotting organic
material – could help a robot vac hone in on day old crumbs.
In the Star Wars movie, the dog-like litter robot worked on shiny, highly
waxed floors. Perhaps a similar environment would make the work of a
modern robot vac easier. Consider a laser radar that’s fired just above and
parallel to the floor. Anything between the robot and floorboard that’s only
a few millimeters in height or width is suspect and requires closer inspection.
Unfortunately, my hypothetical solutions to making a robot vac more
useful aren’t necessarily economically feasible. What would you do to bridge
the functionality gap? What are your must-haves for a robotic vac?
Share your list and, if you have them, photos of your creation with SERVO
6 SERVO 11.2010
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