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Hack Your Vacuum Cleaner

Enough with this serious business stuff. Wendy Wolfson explains creative ways to make your robotic vacuum cleaner do anything besides clean the floor.
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Hack Your Vacuum Cleaner

The combination of extreme sports and housework has given rise to the recent fad of extreme ironing. Athletes have grappled with ironing boards while underwater, wearing full scuba gear, or spread-eagled on a mountain peak. Even though most of us might fantasize about doing our ironing on mountaintops, we really are couch potatoes.

That's key to the popularity of the Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner. It enables you to clean the floor, without lifting your posterior from the sofa. The Roomba is ostensibly the answer to the plaintive lament of that old B52's song, "Housework:" "I'm so tired of this vacuum/Need a man to help soon/... Don't need a man to treat me mean/I need a man to help me clean." If money can't buy you love, at least it can clean your house.

And, as hackers have discovered, the few hundred bucks spent on a Roomba gets them a whole lot more than a clean floor. "Right now, it is probably the world's least expensive robotics platform," says a robotics expert closely associated with the Roomba's development. "For $199, you get the benefit of a few millions of dollars spent in development." If you consider the millions of dollars spent in developing the Mars Rover, to go where no human has gone before, the Roomba starts to look like a real bargain. And a Mars Rover won't clean up your dust bunnies.

A lot of robotics basics are taken care of. According to the Roomba expert, "We have already solved the problem of how it navigates around the house." The sensors are much better than any hobbyist-level robotic device. They won't go off cliffs, and the bump sensor is very sensitive.

On www.roombacommunity.com, participants share angst about dust specks and the difficulty of maneuvering the vacuum around throw rugs, and they also trade tips on how to replace Roomba brains with elaborate new chips. Creative wags have already turned a Roomba into an automatic bong caddy.

For example, Chris Waters, one of the Roomba community site founders, took a soldering iron to his vacuum. "One of the great challenges for robotics hobbyists is getting good motors and sensors for your robot," Waters said. "Some of the hackers, especially those working with the batteries and chargers, started because they wanted to make the Roomba a better vacuuming product, or to correct what they saw as deficiencies."

"Because of the vaccuming, it has good motors." Waters explained. "You can put a laptop on top [along with] a USB camera, and put a wireless card inside your laptop -- and now you have a vision system. You have a great autonomous platform. The Roomba design is really elegant. The interface is readily available. It has sensors built in. If you combine wireless networking with a Roomba, then you could control it from a desktop PC."

While there are already a lot of competitions in maze solving, Waters says his personal favorite practice is to disable the bump sensors, and thus turn two vacuum cleaners into Sumo Robots. In a sumo robot contest, robots need to find each other and push their opponents out of a ring. "It is an intellectual challenge," Waters said.

"Although I haven't seen anyone who has done this yet, I think that there is a lot of scope for improving core functionality of the Roomba as a robotic vacuum cleaner," Waters added. "As it is designed by iRobot, the 'brain' Roomba is quite smart. But it still frustrates a lot of people with the randomness in its cleaning algorithms. I would love to see someone improve the vacuuming algorithms so that, for example, the Roomba cleans a room with a grid pattern, so that someone watching it would be convinced that every part of the room is covered."

The Roomba uses three wheels, two drive wheels and a caster. It uses behavior programming to tune preprogrammed algorithms that are designed to work with a normal house.

"Don't try to unscrew it," the expert cautioned. "It is ultrasonically welded to keep people from getting into the battery pack. "You have to chisel it open."

The brains that iRobot used for the Roomba are stripped down for cost reasons, but hackers use more elaborate chips to make them easier to program and control. The Roomba expert commented that a robot can be programmed to solve a maze, for example, by always turning left. By putting your hand on a wall and walking, you can walk around the entire building. "Some people try to make it clean in a square pattern, and find it doesn't work."

"The number one robotics problem in hacking a Roomba is Where am I?" according to the Roomba expert. That is why people might try things like navigation algorithms or position estimation. A combination of smart local behaviors handle walls and very tight areas, as well as random bounce-based wide area coverage. Touch is the easiest in terms of robustness of a commercial project. "There is nothing else that can make it around the house that costs two hundred dollars, til the Roomba knockoffs come out," the robotics expert said.

Future hacking challenges include adding sonar, vision or laser scanning, but the expert cautions, they remain expensive. "But a good bump sensor is really cheap. Plus you can throw it down the stairs and it will still work." If you leave the cleaning head on, the Roomba has problems with tassels. "It would be nicer if they could go over shag carpet better," he said reflectively.

In the annals of extreme vacuum cleaners, what is the ultimate Roomba challenge?

"Dog hair," he said succinctly.

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