Our robotics team participates in several outreach
events throughout the year. We take our robots to Girl Scout
gatherings and STEM events like NASA in the Park. The
PiCreate Roomba bot was particularly effective at STEM-Night, which is sponsored by the local hockey team. We
joined other clubs and companies in hosting information
tables and demonstrations in the walkways outside the
hockey arena. We put our team flyers on top of the Roomba
robots and drove them into the crowds. We literally lured
kids to our table with signs on the robots that said “Come to
Most people have seen a Roomba. It is familiar, friendly,
and approachable. Few people have driven one, however.
We used web-based remote controls on phones and tablets.
(I’ll show you this software later in the article). For some
folks, it was their first experience with a tank-drive. They
noticed the Raspberry Pi on top and asked, “Is it hard to
Let me show you here how easy it is.
The iRobot company was founded in 1990 by three
roboticists from MIT. You know iRobot as the makers of
Roomba, but they do much, much more. Their robots have
explored the Great Pyramid of Giza, helped troops in the
Middle East, and searched the rubble after the 9/11 attack
in 2001. The Roomba vacuums didn’t come along until
Every Roomba since October 2005 has a built-in serial
port you can use to talk to the robot. Most models have a
physical seven-pin connector, but newer Wi-Fi models expose
the command API through a network socket connection.
iRobot maintains a detailed Open Interface PDF document
you can download from their website.
You control the robot’s motors and LEDs by sending
intuitive serial commands. You can send serial commands to
query the robot’s buttons and many sensors: battery charge
and current; any IR commands from a base station; and
detailed information about bumps, walls, and cliffs.
We love our Roomba floor vacuum at home. I lifted the
handle one afternoon and found the clearly labeled “serial
port.” I chatted with iRobot support and asked why they
would include a serial port and control firmware on a mass-produced consumer product.
The official line is that the port is for upgrades and
diagnostics. They discouraged me from hacking my
Roomba as it would void the warranty. Yet, there is the fully
functional serial port. That’s like handing me a Dachshund
puppy and telling me not to play with it!
The iRobot company does encourage hobbyists to
buy the Create platform they make explicitly for robotics
innovators. In 2007, the first version of Create featured the
standard iRobot serial port along with many signals brought
out to the DB- 25 connector in the large cargo bay.
In 2014, iRobot replaced the Create line with the
Create2, which is built from remanufactured 600-series
Roombas. You can see both models in Figure 1.
iRobot supports an active Create community that
shares hardware projects and code in many programming
languages. Have a look at their website. You’ll find 3D
printer files to make accessories for the Create2. You’ll find
links to tutorials, libraries, and ideas for using Create2 in a
Figure 1. The iRobot Create2 (left) and Create1 (right). Both
are controlled by Raspberry Pis. The red board in the bottom
left is the SparkFun line follower array.
SERVO 09/10.2018 37
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