Not long ago, I noticed that the cleaning robot was ill. It would start its cleaning cycle, run very fast for some seconds, and then make one of its warning noises and stop. This was a few days before my guests were due to arrive for the holidays, and I’d planned a big session of extra attentive house preparation, involving me putting up curtain rails for some new drapes in the living room, installing various shiny fittings in a spare bathroom, and a few other things like that, while the plucky little robot would run around all the floors and give them a good clean. So I had a dilemma – spend time trying to get it well, or use that time to do the floors myself? A bit of googling revealed that the warning noise was signalling something about a sensor possibly going bad. Did I want to spend the time heading to Fry’s electronics to see they had the sensors? Then digging around inside replacing them, with all the soldering, etc., that would entail? Fun, but time-consuming. After a day or two, I decided to do an investigative poke around the interior of the patient, just in case it might just be a matter of clearing or re-seating the sensor array…You never know.
The innards are delightfully put together! The iRobot people deserve some congratulations for good design. It took little time to take the thing apart, and it is very modular inside, with various components popping out quite nicely. It had a lot of dust in several places, notably. I got out my can of compressed air to blow dust out from various tight corners, and put it all back together after a short while. I got it started again and it seemed to run normally, until I noticed that it was missing a key familiar tone in its running sound that I realized was the main brush assembly turning. I’d evidently not re-plugged that into the body properly. I undid some screws, reseated that part, and sealed it all up again.
It worked perfectly. Hurrah!
I was glad it was running again, since besides the cleaning help I wanted from it, there was another thing I wanted to do with it. Impress my sister’s four year old son. After all, he’s watching TV programs about robots, drawing robots, pretending to be robots, talking about robots, and so forth… surely he’d want to see a real one? So during the visit, at some point I decided he was ready for this special treat. So I talked to him about what robots were, and then asked him if he’d like to see a real live one!! He was excited about this, so I went and got the robot, put it into the middle of the room, and told him he could press the big green button to wake it up. He did, and it started its cleaning cycle… his face lit up with delight, and I showed him how it responds to its environment (stopping from bumping into things, going around things, etc), makes decisions about its route around the room, etc. A real, clever, autonomous, helpful robot!
After about 20 minutes of excitement he was bored and disappointed with it, and went to do something else. He said it wasn’t really a robot. It didn’t walk, talk, or shoot things…
Ok, not sure if I’m recalling the shooting part properly, but all the robots he seems to like on TV and so forth definitely are involved in shooting and blowing things up, not to mention flying, turning into other things, etc. It is difficult for a poor little cleaning ‘bot to compete with that I suppose…*
*Nice coincidence here. On the bus home today, I spotted an article in this week’s USC Chronicle magazine on the rise of robotics, commercially and otherwise, and the work of the company iRobot is mentioned there. See here.