Automaton iconAutomaton

Da Vinci Surgical Bot Folds, Throws Tiny Paper Airplane

da vinci surgical robot

Everybody already thinks that robot surgery is way cool, but I suppose there's no harm in taking a few minutes to show off the precision that tiny little robot grippers are capable of. On the other end of these steely claws is an even steelier-eyed surgeon with a questionable amount of aeronautical experience, and in between the two is a da Vinci surgical system. This particular robot hails from Swedish Hospital in, you guessed it, Seattle.

The da Vinci system, if you recall, provides surgeons with an interface that allows them to control little robotic hands with their own (much larger) hands, enabling much finer control in a much tighter space. For patients, this means smaller incisions that heal faster, and for surgeons, it means no more going elbow deep into someone else's guts.

I do feel obligated to point out that depending on your definition of robot, the da Vinci system may not qualify as one, in that it doesn't have much of an autonomous component: all of those motions are controlled directly by the surgeon using a master/slave system. However, robots with actual autonomous surgical capabilities aren't that far off, and now that we've seen demos of robots autonomously sucking your blood out and autonomously taking biopsies on simulated turkey prostates, it's just a matter of time before you start having to choose your surgeon based on whether it's running Windows or Linux.

[ Intuitive Surgical ] via [ Nerdist ]

TED Talk: Berkeley Bionics

We were on hand when Berkeley Bionics introduced their eLEGS exoskeleton last October, and there's no doubt that it's a pretty amazing piece of hardware. The same company is also responsible for the HULC exoskeleton, which they've licensed to Lockheed Martin. If you're already familiar with Berkeley Bionics' stuff, there isn't too much new in the presentation, but it's always great to see these incredible exoskeletons in action:

Incidentally, media coverage of the eLEGS launch focused extensively on how the exoskeleton had the potential to "free" people with disabilities from what they seemed to assume is some kind of lousy and pitiable quality of life, which is certainly not the case. I'd encourage you to read this wonderful article by Gary Karp on the subject, and also consider how sometimes, people with "disabilities" can actually be super human in some ways.

[ Berkeley Bionics ] via [ TED ]

Weird French Robot Reeti Wants To Be Your Home Theater

This curious really kinda weird looking robot is Reeti, who's apparently what you get when a robot and a media center PC have offspring. Reeti is designed to provide an interface between your TV and your computer, offering a variety of additional capabilities, or something... I'm honestly not quite sure what it, um, does.

Setting practical uses aside, Reeti is very emotionally expressive, considering its relative simplicity. It has cheeks that glow to communicate mood, and there are touch sensors in its face to enable it to react when you prod it. Each of Reeti's eyes has its own HD camera, and its 3D perceptual view lets it recognize people and objects and track motion. Reeti can understand (and localize) spoken commands, and its speech synthesis allows it to read emails and RSS feeds to you. Oh hey, something it can do!

If you're still wondering what other things Reeti can do for you besides reading aloud, maybe this will answer your question:

Or, uh, maybe not.

I guess what I still don't really understand is why I'd want a Reeti in my house. I mean, I want one, because it's a robot, and it's expressive and funny looking, but at this point I'm not quite sure what Reeti plans to do for me that I couldn't do more efficiently with a mouse and keyboard, you know? It looks like Reeti is designed to be more of an open platform where people can write their own apps to extend the capabilities of the robot, which is fine, but if you look at what makes an app store successful, they're mostly targeted towards devices with enough inherent capability that you can establish a large, happy consumer base without any apps at all, creating your own market. So that goes back to my original question: what can Reeti do for me?

Setting practical uses aside (for the second time), I do appreciate Reeti's overall aesthetic, if you can call it that. Reeti is likely as strange looking as it is, in order to distance itself from any sort of anthropomorphic impressions. It's got eyes and a mouth to help it communicate, but it's so far from looking human that we don't get caught up in how it doesn't look human, if that makes sense

Reeti is made by the French company Robopec, and apparently there will be some way of pre-ordering one at some point for about $7,000 (!). Until we get a little more information on all of the spectacular and amazing things that Reeti may or may not be able to do, though, I'd hold off adopting one of these little guys, unless you're so smitten that it's already too late.

[ Reeti ] via [ Robots Dreams ] and [ CNET ]

The Global Robotics Brain Project

global robotics brain

Why is this man smiling?

Because in his brain resides a database with more than 36,000 robotics companies, robotics labs, robotics projects, robotics researchers, and robotics publications, all categorized, tagged, and linked.

No, not in the brain inside his head. We're talking about the Global Robotics Brain, a project that the man, Wolfgang Heller, started to keep track of the robotsphere.

Inspired by Google's PageRank, Heller, a business intelligence consultant from Sweden, asked himself: Could he use a similar approach to draw a map of interactions between the different robotics players and identify who is doing the most relevant work? What trends are emerging?

In 2005, after a visit to the World Robotics Exhibition in Aichi, Japan, he started to systematically feed his database with anything related to robotics he came across. He then created tools to automate the process. Six years later, the result is a "gigantic mindmap of a broad range of robotics resources," he tells me.

Heller isn't building this brain for fun. His hope is that companies and labs will pay him to access it. A free version is available for students and researchers for personal use; an expanded version with more detailed information is available for organizations on an annual subscription basis.

In the expanded version, you'll find insights on robotics trends that Heller generates periodically (using, we should note, both his brain and the database brain). Here's his latest list of robotics trends:

1. Industrial robotics renaissance. Soft mobile robots start working alongside human workers. Examples: Toyota safe human-robot factory assembling, Festo Bionic Handling Assistant, pi4 Workerbot, Robonaut2).

2. Urban service robotics renaissance. Smart mobile robots enter public space for safe and green city living. Examples: Dustbot, Google autonomous car, ubiquitous robotics, Cyber-Physical-Systems.

3. Civil robotics Renaissance. Transfer of military robotics into civilian robot application. Examples: Telepresence robots, civil UAV & UGV, telesurgery, rescue, Ambient Assisted Living.

4. Robotics toy-to-tool renaissance. New generation reinvents and remixes robotics technology, artificial intelligence, information and communication technologies, nano and biotechnology into new toy-to-tool robot platforms. Examples: Nao, PR2, Kinect, ROS.

5. Robotics promotion renaissance. Governments have recognized robotics as strategic technology that requires R&D investments and public awareness. Examples: National robotics roadmaps, flagship research programs, establishment of centers of excellence, robotics science and amusements parks, national robotics weeks, robotics challenges.

Check out the Global Robotics Brain to see if you envisage other trends. Try to look where the investment is coming from, where the research is taking place, where technology gets commercialized, and so forth. Soon you’ll start feeling like you also have a robotics brain.

Samuel Bouchard is a co-founder of Robotiq.

Quadrotors Demonstrate Mad Cooperative Juggling Skills

Back in December, I posted a little teaser preview of a talented quadrotor juggling a ball at ETH Zurich's entirely awesome Flying Machine Arena. That quadrotor has been practicing, and has even enlisted a friend. Hey look, now robots can amuse themselves!

Besides the quadrotors, what makes this all possible is an extremely sophisticated motion capture system, so it's unlikely that you'll see these skills (or these skills, for that matter) outside of a tightly controlled environment.

For the record, these are easily the most impressive juggling robots in recent memory, which includes one or two or three or four other bots. Now seriously, put a net up there and let's have ourselves some robot volleyball already.

[ ETH - IDSC ]

Robots Are the Next Revolution, So Why Isn't Anyone Acting Like It?

willow garage pr2 robot
This robot can fetch you a beer. But it will cost you $400,000.

Back in 2006, when Bill Gates was making his tear-filled transition from the PC industry into a tear-filled career as a philanthropist, he penned an editorial on robotics that became a rallying cry for… no one. Titled "A Robot in Every Home," Bill Gates highlighted the obvious parallels between the pre-Microsoft PC industry and the pre-anybody personal robotics industry. Industrial use, research work, and a fringe garage hobby. That was the state of the computer industry before Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, and that’s more or less the state of the robotics industry now, five years after Bill’s editorial.

Of course, Bill hasn’t been around to make the dream come true, he’s been busy saving Africa and our public school system and the souls of fellow billionaires. He did leave behind a multi-billion dollar sotware company, however, that is perfectly poised to make "A Robot in Every Home" a piece of fact instead of fiction. Since then, Microsoft’s one major (intentional) contribution to the industry has been the sporadically updated Microsoft Robotics Developer Studio. It’s a good tool for prototyping and simulating simple robotics, but it isn’t moving anything forward. In fact, it treats the robotics industry exactly like computer industry stalwarts treated the burgeoning PC industry: as a hobby. What Microsoft hasn’t been doing over these past years is building a robot operating system, or making an even greater gamble on actual robots themselves.

Oddly enough, Microsoft’s largest contribution to robotics as of yet was largely inadvertent. The Kinect sensor for the Xbox 360 was launched in November of 2010, and was a surprising success with consumers. While normal people snapped up the mysterious sensor by the millions, brought it into their living rooms, and realized how very-out-of-shape they were, pale hobbyists ("hackers," as they’re known these days) quickly sequestered themselves in their garages (circa 2010/2011: poorly heated loft apartments), and taught the Kinect sensor new tricks. The piece of hardware that was originally intended to be a locked down add-on for the 360 became a multipurpose 3D sensor extraordinaire. Microsoft actually issued a mild out-of-touch (and never repeated) threat to the hackers, but the "damage" was done, and hundreds of burgeoning roboticists had a supremely powerful tool in their hands -- and incidentally generated millions of dollars worth of free PR for Kinect with YouTube videos of their exploits.

In 1974, when Intel released the 8080 microprocessor, it wasn’t trying to invent the PC, it was just trying to improve upon its existing, limited 8-bit 8008 chip. It was up to the likes of MITS (the Altair 8800) and Microsoft (Altair Basic) to make good use of it. Clones and successors quickly followed, and Intel has obviously kept up over the years. Perhaps Microsoft would be happy to accidentally spark a robotics revolution with the Kinect sensor, but wouldn’t it prefer to be at the center of it? Besides, Microsoft doesn’t actually build the 3D sensor heart of the Kinect, those honors go to a company called PrimeSense, which is offering the same tech to anyone for a similarly low price.

Someone is going to figure this out. Willow Garage, fueled by some mysterious and apparently inexhaustible venture capital, is taking the open source angle with its ROS (Robot Operating System). The project already has a good amount of traction among bearded hackers and ambitious university robotics programs, since it allows altruistic types to build upon the innovation of others instead of continually "reinventing the wheel" (as Willow Garage puts it) and building their own robot operating system and hardware support from the ground up. Still, while ROS has made great strides and is home to some very exciting innovation -- along with its fair share of Kinect hacks, of course -- it’s nothing a consumer would find useful or even approachable. What the personal computing revolution did was take tools that were already commonplace in the enterprise and hand them to regular cro-mags who wanted to "balance a checkbook" with a spreadsheet application or "word process" without a typewriter ribbon. Microsoft put those tools in the hands of hobbyists, then Apple put them in the hands of regular people, and then Microsoft put them in the hands of everybody.

What we need a Microsoft or a Google or an Apple to do -- or if they won’t do it, Enterprising Upstart X -- is build an operating system that runs on standardized hardware or commodity hardware, with built-in capabilities for doing things that are actually useful for a home user. Buzzing you in when you get locked out, signing for a package, taking that frozen chicken out of the freezer while you’re at work, feeding your pet, and of course the veritable classic of robo-problems: getting you a beer. As simple as these things sound, they’re actually incredibly complex in terms of where general robotics innovation is at currently. That’s why EUX is a longshot, but there’s still room for some barefaced ingenuity. The dawn of the PC was marked by incredible efficiency of code and hardware, techniques that made Bill Gates and Steve Wozniak famous. Currently, the retail robot closest to being able to manage all these tasks is Willow Garage’s PR2, which costs $400,000, harbors two dual-processor Xeon servers (16 cores total) and is still slow as molasses.

Imagine a robot that you could buy at Best Buy for somewhere between $2k and $4k, unbox and configure in half an hour, and then just take for granted as an extremely reliable, whine-free household member for the next few years (or, if you bought it from Apple, exactly 12 months before the upgrade lust sets in). It would change everything. Of course, it sounds preposterous given the current state of this barely-there industry, but it’s going to be a reality within the next decade. Who will get us there first?

Image: Willow Garage

Paul J. Miller, a New York-based technology writer, is a former editor at Engadget. This post appeared originally at

iMobot Brings Robot Modules to Modular Robots

We love the concept behind modular robots: they're simple, cheap, easy to use, and capable of doing anything you want them to do, as long as you're willing to let them reconfigure. They're also easy to fix, and in many cases, capable of fixing themselves. So for example, if you've got a modular humanoid that you decide to kick in the face, it can put itself back together, as long as it's got enough modules attached to each other to enable movement. But single modules, left on their own, are more or less helpless.

iMobot is a project from UC Davis that takes all those cool possibilities embodied in modular robotics and adds a couple extra degrees of freedom that gives each individual module significant capabilities as well. The basic central hinged design is familiar from projects like ckBot, but iMobot adds rotating plates at the end of each module, which can turn the module into a single axle of sorts, capable of driving itself around. The modules can also crawl, roll, and "undulate" to get from place to place:

Besides movement, these additional degrees of freedom allow the modules themselves to perform tasks, like operating as little individual camera turrets. And of course, by sticking a bunch of the modules together, you can create much more sophisticated robots with enhanced capabilities: 

The creators of these modules, Graham Ryland and Professor Harry Cheng, have taken the promising step of starting up their own company to produce these little guys in bulk and make them available for research institutions and anybody else who wants to mess around with modular robots. Barobo already has a sizable NSF grant to kick things off, and they hope to have a product ready to go by the end of the year. 

[ iMobot ] via [ Physorg ]

Japanese Robot Surveys Damaged Gymnasium Too Dangerous for Rescue Workers

Editor's Note: This is part of our ongoing news coverage of Japan's earthquake and nuclear emergency.

japan earthquake tsunami search and rescue robot

Japanese researchers have sent a robot into a damaged gymnasium where a partially collapsed ceiling makes it dangerous for rescue workers.

The team used a remote-controlled ground robot to enter the building in Hachinohe, Aomori Prefecture, in the northeastern portion of Japan's Honshu island, and assess damages.

The roboticists, led by Fumitoshi Matsuno, a professor at Kyoto University and vice president of the International Rescue System Institute, used their KOHGA3 robot, a tank-like machine equipped with cameras and sensors, to carry out the mission.

"Part of the ceiling fell down," Prof. Matsuno told me. "That's why we used the robot." Emergency workers feared that aftershocks could send the rest of the ceiling crashing down.

Several robotics teams have been on standby throughout Japan, ready to assist in rescue and recovery operations after the earthquake and tsunami that struck the country early this month. Robots could also help at the troubled Fukushima Dai-1 nuclear power plant.

At the Hachinohe gymnasium, Prof. Matsuno's group set up the operator station -- a laptop computer with a video game-style controller attached -- at a safe location near the entrance. From there, they deployed their robot. Watch:

The KOHGA3 has powerful motors and four sets of tracks that allow it to traverse rubble, climb steps, and go over inclines up to 45 degrees. The robot is 86 centimeters long, 53 cm tall, and weighs in at 40 kilograms. Its maximum speed is 1.8 meters per second.

The robot carries three CCD cameras, a thermal camera, laser scanner, LED light, attitude sensor, and a gas sensor. Its 4-degrees-of-freedom robotic arm is nearly 1 meter long and equipped with CCD camera, carbon-dioxide sensor, thermal sensor, and LED light.

Upon reaching the area above which the ceiling had collapsed, the robot directed one of its CCD cameras upward, using its zoom capabilities to get a good look of the damage. The robot also pointed its camera to the debris on the ground, so workers could determine whether structural parts of the roof had collapsed.

japan earthquake tsunami search and rescue robot

japan earthquake tsunami search and rescue robot

japan earthquake tsunami search and rescue robot

Then it was time to explore other parts of the gymnasium. The roboticists drove up to a room, whose door was half open. Before entering, they used the robotic arm to peek inside. "Using a camera that is mounted at the tip of the arm, we obtained information on what's inside the room," Prof. Matsuno said.

The Kyoto University team included Dr. Noritaka Sato, Dr. Kazuyuki Kon, and Hiroki Igarashi. Prof. Masatshi Daikoku and Dr. Ryusuke Fujisawa from the Hachinohe Institute of Technology collaborated with the mission. The researchers are members of the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society.

The researchers also inspected the stage of the gymnasium, again using the robot's CCD cameras and the one mounted on the robotic arm. With all the inspection tasks completed, they drove the robot back to the entrance.

The group departed Hachinohe and headed out to Kuji, Iwate Prefecture, hoping to perform more inspections there. Their first stop was the National Kuji Storage Base, one of Japan's main oil stockpiles, with three storage tanks and total capacity of 10.5 million barrels. The facility, located on the seashore, was completely destroyed [photos below], and there wasn't much the robots could do to help.

japan earthquake tsunami search and rescue robots

japan earthquake tsunami search and rescue robots

Next they followed to a shipyard nearby. There were still buildings standing that rescue workers needed to inspect. The roboticists offered their assistance, but the officials in charge told them that a private company owned the buildings and they'd have to get permission to use the robots.

japan earthquake tsunami search and rescue robots

In another attempt to deploy their robot, the roboticists drove to Noda village, located about 15 kilometers south of Kuji. The earthquake and tsunami wiped out the coastal strip of Noda, leaving almost every building completely destroyed [photos below].

japan earthquake tsunami search and rescue robots

japan earthquake tsunami search and rescue robots

On a rooftop overlooking the devastated landscape, the roboticists discussed potential targets for their robot with the rescue workers in charge. But the same impediment came up: The buildings were private property, and the roboticists would need permission from the owners to get in, a process that could take a long time.

japan earthquake tsunami search and rescue robots

After several days on the road looking for opportunities to assist with their robot, the Kyoto University team began to make its way home. The researchers were happy to have helped, but also overwhelmed by the extent of the destruction they saw. Their contribution, Prof. Matsuno said, is only a "very small result."

Images: Fumitoshi Matsuno/Kyoto University


Can Robots Fix Troubled Reactors?
Tue, March 22, 2011

Blog Post: It's too dangerous for humans to enter the Fukushima Dai-1 nuclear plant. Why not send in robots?

iRobot Sends Packbots to Fukushima
Fri, March 18, 2011

Blog Post: A group of iRobot employees is on their way to Japan along with specially equipped Packbots and Warriors

More Robots to the Rescue
Fri, March 18, 2011

Blog Post: An underwater vehicle and another ground robot join the rescue and recovery operations

Robots Help Search For Survivors
Sun, March 13, 2011

Blog Post: Japanese engineers are deploying wheeled and snake-like robots to assist emergency responders

Festo Launches SmartBird Robotic Seagull

Festo has a fairly fascinating, frankly fantastical, and frequently full-on fabulous history with the robotic systems that they develop in partnership with universities and research groups as part of their Bionic Learning Network. In the past, we've seen flying penguins and jellyfish, as well as bio-inspired manipulators like this one.

Today, Festo has unveiled their 2011 Bionic Learning Network projects, the most awesome of which is definitely SmartBird. Watch it fly:

And here's what going on inside:

Unlike many of Festo's flying robots, SmartBird doesn't appear to rely on lifting gas at all. It weighs less than half a kilo, and is capable of autonomous take-off, flight, and landing using just its two meter-long wings. SmartBird is modeled very closely on the herring gull, and controls itself the same way birds do, by twisting its body, wings, and tail. For example, if you look closely in the video, you can see SmartBird turning its head to steer.

I love how Festo isn't just inspired by biological systems, but actually strives to exactly duplicate their functionality, often with remarkable results. We saw this philosophy in action last year, too, with their elephant trunk gripper, that now has a new home on a mobile robotic base:

This system is called Robotino XT, and it's easy to use, fast, precise, and most importantly human-safe thanks to the pliable nature of its arm and gripper, which is actually printed using a 3D printer.

Hit up the links below for lots more information; Festo's website have links to PDF brochures with just about all the detail you could possibly want.

[ Festo SmartBird ] and [ Festo Robotino XT ]

Review: iRobot Scooba 230

The iRobot Scooba 230 fits an entire floor washing robot inside an adorable little cylindrical package.

We're totally stoked about iRobot's new Scooba 230 floor cleaning robot, largely because it's something entirely new from iRobot, a company that we've gently chided in the past for making only incremental and cosmetic improvements to their consumer products over the last few years.

The Scooba 230, which becomes available for purchase this week, manages to fit an entire floor washing robot inside an adorable little cylindrical package. But is a robot this small able to clean bathrooms and kitchens well enough to give you a break from your chores? We got ourselves a review unit, and we'll tell you, right now.

In the box, or at least the box we got, you'll find the robot itself, two virtual walls (the kind with on/off switches that take those gigantic D batteries that nobody ever uses except for oversized flashlights), a set of three spare bottom plates, a base plate, some packets of cleaning solution, the battery, a charger (two prong), and a handy quick-start guide.

If you have a Roomba, or a regular Scooba, the first thing you'll notice about the Scooba 230 is that it's small. Incredibly small. I have relatively big hands, I'm told, but this robot fits comfortably in one of them. The controls, all of two buttons, are mounted on the top: there's one button that says "power" and one button that says "clean." There's even an adorable carrying handle.

The top of the Scooba 230 is at about the same height as a Roomba or Scooba, and I assume that the infrared virtual wall sensors are spaced around the top rim somewhere underneath that black strip. The front of the robot, all 180 degrees worth, is a bump sensor, and there's a wall-following sensor looking forwards too.

Around the back, you'll find the battery slot, which is kinda neat: the battery itself is long and flat and extends essentially the entire length of the body of the robot. If you're curious, it's a 7.2 V, 1300 mAh, nickel metal hydride. It's press-fit, without any catches or clips or anything, and there's an o-ring on the outside end to keep it dry. Right next to the battery is a little rubber flap that keeps the charging port covered.

The Scooba 230 fills up with clean water from the front and empties dirty water out the back (more on that later). Little plastic doors (handily labeled "FILL" and "EMPTY") flip out to allow water to be added or removed. The doors are designed so that you have to press them tightly into the robot to make sure they seal properly, but there's no clicking noise or anything to let you know you've got it tight enough. It's a little too easy to not quite press the door hard enough, which will end up letting little dribbles of water leak out.

Poking around the Scooba 230 as much as I can without going at it with a hacksaw reveals some neat design features. Part of how iRobot was able to make the robot so small was to use an active reservoir system, which you can see when you look in the fill ports:

Inside, there's a large water compartment containing one big flexible plastic bladder that's attached to the "FILL"port. When you fill the robot with clean water, the bladder expands until you've got about 1.65 cups of water in it, and it entirely fills the interior of the robot. As the robot does its thing, it sprays clean water out and sucks dirty water in, and the dirty water starts filling up the inside of the robot's sealed water compartment, but outside the clean water bladder itself, which is busy getting smaller as the water gets used up.

So eventually, you end up with lots of dirty water inside the water compartment, and an empty clean water bladder that's squished flat and not taking up any room. The clever bit is that the volume of water inside the robot never really changes; clean water in one place just gets turned into dirty water in another place, and utilization of the limited amount of space inside the bot is always close to 100 percent.

The bottom plate itself is detachable in five seconds with no tools, making it easy to take it off to clean it or to put a new one on if the little scrubby bristles wear out, which happens in about six months of normal use. Near the back is the squeegee, which has a bunch of tiny (millimeter-sized) holes punched into it that lead to two ports up inside the body of the robot. This, I assume, is the system used to suck up dirty water back into the Scooba, and as far as I can tell, these holes set the limit of what the robot can physically remove from the floor. Let me reiterate that: anything larger than these teeny tiny little holes will not be "cleaned up" by the robot, it'll just get shoved around.

Underneath the bottom plate, you can see a peristaltic pump that's used to squirt the clean water out of the robot. This makes a lot of sense, largely because pumps like this have basically one single moving part and no valves or seals or anything else to wear out, which definitely bodes well for the reliability of the robot itself.

The slots at the front of the robot appear to be the edge sensors, not the water jets. In fact, I had a heckuva time trying to figure out where the robot spits out the clean water, until I realized that a lot of it actually comes out the back, not the front. You can see minuscule nozzles here, that align with slightly less minuscule holes in the bottom plate:

Why does it work this way? Well, you have to remember that the Scooba (and every other home robot that iRobot makes, pretty much) is designed to work most effectively in multiple passes. So in this case, my guess is that since the water comes out the back (or mostly out the back, at least), pass one is with dry bristles, which are probably more effective at loosening up dirt. Then, water is left on the dirt as the robot passes over it to let it soak a bit. Finally, after a few passes, the robot stops squiring water out the back and transitions to just squeegeeing it up, and you're left with a clean, dry(ish) floor.

Now, on to what you really care about, which is how it works in practice. My bathroom supports a total of three people. And three cats. And, four three rats. And also one rather large snake. Admittedly, not all of us are generally trying to use the bathroom at the same time (or, at all), but I mention them anyway to attempt to give you a flavor of the variety (and quantity) of, uh, maintenance that our bathroom generally requires.

The first thing to do when using the Scooba 230 is to fill it with warm, but not hot, water. I tried to be careful, but it's hard to avoid slopping water all over the robot as you do this. Fortunately, iRobot figured that this would happen, and the bot can get wet (to a reasonable extent) without harming it. It's important to leave the back ("EMPTY") port open even as you fill the bot with clean water; this lets the bladder expand fully. After putting the water in, you can optionally add cleaning solution before sealing it up.

Starting the cleaning cycle involves all of two buttons, and since the robot only has two buttons, you're not likely to have trouble figuring out which ones to push. The only decision you have to make is whether you want the robot to clean for 20 minutes for smallish areas (60 square feet or so), or 40 minutes for largeish areas up to 150 square feet. It defaults to a 40 minute clean, but if you hold the "CLEAN" button for a couple extra seconds, it makes a sound and switches over to 20 minutes. And then, you just let the Scooba 230 do its job, simple as that.

I have to say, it's a pretty cute little robot to watch at work. It's brisk. Determined. Feisty, even. It clearly wants to do a bang-up job, and it's going put in as much effort as its round little body is capable of to get your floors clean. While operating, the 230 is certainly not silent, but it's not what I'd call loud, either. You can have a conversation while it's running, and if you lock it in your bathroom, you'll probably only here the occasional "thunk" as it runs into a wall.

It's possible to pick the robot up mid-cycle, and it will stop cleaning. However, it gets unhappy when you do this and complains loudly, flashes a red light, and drips all over the place. This brings up an unfortunate reality of a wet-surface cleaning robot, which is that unlike a Roomba, you can't really just decide that it's done and shut it off. I mean, you can, but if you interrupt the Scooba in the middle of its cleaning cycle, it's going to leave a wet and sloppy mess all over your floor.

After a full cleaning cycle, the Scooba 230 will sing at you and light up a little green check mark to let you know that it's done. You can then lift it up, carry it over to the sink, and dump the dirty water out of the "EMPTY" door. It's much less drippy when you pick it up at the end of its cycle, probably because it's had its water jets turned off for a little bit before it actually stops cleaning.

A cursory inspection revealed some gunk caught up in the bristles on the bottom plate, which I rinsed off. A more careful inspection revealed that a few of the tiny little vacuum holes that the robot uses to suck up dirty water were clogged by more gunk. This is a little bit troubling, since it implies that after maybe five or ten runs, all of the vacuum holes would be clogged up and the Scooba would cease to clean. Luckily, iRobot has anticipated such an event, and the rubber squeegee bit can be partially removed to get at the holes from both sides and clean them out. You can also remove and clean the wheels, and iRobot recommends that you rinse out both water reservoirs.

The robot got pretty wet during this cleaning process (which took me maybe 3 minutes), and some water got up underneath its front bumper and stuff, but no electrical shorts or fires seemed to result, so that's good. Personally, it's hard to get used to cleaning a robot under running water, but with the Scooba 230, that seems to be the way to go.

When the bot is all emptied out and cleaned up, you just set it on its little baseplate where it can drip dry without making a mess, plug in the charger, and you're done.

So, great, but how's the floor? The short answer is, it's clean. The long answer is, it's clean but still pretty wet. I was honestly expecting the robot to do a slightly better job of getting the water up. I wouldn't say that it leaves puddles or anything, but you'll need to let the floor air-dry for a few minutes at least. To give you a better sense of how much water it leaves behind, here's a pic of a glass tabletop after the robot has cleaned it:

In general, however, I was quite impressed by how clean the bathroom got. The robot was successful at removing not just surface dirt, but also sticky patches from soap and things that would generally require a bit of scrubbing from a human. It can easily and effectively take over for routine bathroom floor maintenance, and there's nothing stopping it from being equally effective on other hard surfaces in your home, like kitchens. Really, it does a good job.

Now, as impressive as the Scooba 230 is, there are some points that you should be aware of if you're thinking about buying one. First off, one thing that quickly became apparent when using the Scooba 230 is that, as we suspected based on the design of the bottom plate, while the robot is totally happy to clean the surface of your floor, it's really not any good at picking up stuff that couldn't be called "dirt." It does have a vacuum in it, but that vacuum is designed to suck up water, not debris, and is physically incapable of ingesting any particles larger than about a millimeter. You may need to sweep or vacuum your floor before you unleash the Scooba on it.

Another thing to be aware of is that the Scooba 230 can't clean corners. That same roundness that allows it to make zero-radius turns also prevents it from getting itself into square corners. It's great at getting close up along walls, but there are always going to be little triangles inside any right angles in your bathroom where the robot simply can't reach.

I don't feel like this is a huge issue, though, because iRobot has always said, quite correctly, that their robots are maintenance tools. Neither a Roomba nor a full-size Scooba can completely take over for you wielding a vacuum or a mop. What the robots can do is make things significantly cleaner most of the time, and make it so that the cleaning that you have to do is easier and less frequent. Yes, you're still going to have to clean your bathroom floor to get those little corners that your Scooba misses. But when you don't have time to do that, the robot will keep most of your floor much, much cleaner.

The last thing to be aware of about the Scooba is that it's not designed to be completely autonomous, and has somewhat less autonomy than a Roomba does. With a Roomba, you can tell it to clean a room, and then just leave, and the robot will do its thing and then go back home to charge, and it can do this several times completely unsupervised. The Scooba, by contrast, requires you to fill it with clean water, seal it up, tell it to clean, go get it after it's done cleaning, dump out the dirty water, and then plug it into its charger every time you want it to do its job. There's no "fire and forget" capability. This, incidentally, is why the Scooba doesn't have a scheduling function: the assumption is that you're going to need to be there at the beginning and the end of the cycle.

Really, though, it's all relative. The fact is, the Scooba does the cleaning for you, which is otherwise the sucky part. Yes, it requires you to put a minimal amount of effort into setup and cleanup, but while it's scrubbing your floors, you can go do something else. Someday, I'm sure, robots will be able to integrate themselves much better into our homes, and iRobot might even be working on it. But until that happens, the Scooba 230 requires minimal and intuitive maintenance that isn't nearly as bothersome as it sounds, especially relative to its effectiveness.

The Scooba 230 kit (which includes the virtual walls and spare base plates) costs $299.99, or $300 to anyone who's not a marketing executive. It's on sale at as of right now, so if you like the look of it, go get one! And if you've got any questions, this baby is mine for the next week, so ask away.

[ iRobot Scooba 230 ]



IEEE Spectrum's award-winning robotics blog, featuring news, articles, and videos on robots, humanoids, automation, artificial intelligence, and more.
Contact us:

Erico Guizzo
New York, N.Y.
Senior Writer
Evan Ackerman
Berkeley, Calif.
Jason Falconer
Angelica Lim
Tokyo, Japan

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up for the Automaton newsletter and get biweekly updates about robotics, automation, and AI, all delivered directly to your inbox.

Load More