New Roomba vacuum finds its own way home

The newest generation of the Roomba robot vacuum cleaner has learned how to charge itself at a docking station, detect the best cleaning pattern for a given room and seek out dirt particles the size of finely ground pepper. If only it could take out the trash and wash the windows.

"I sound like a vacuum-cleaner salesman," said Colin Angle, chief executive officer of iRobot Corp., while demonstrating the cleaning techniques of the new Roomba Discovery product. Angle probably didn't anticipate traveling the country touting the virtues of a high-tech vacuum cleaner when he founded iRobot in 1990 with two other graduates of the Artificial Intelligence Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. IRobot makes several other sophisticated robots, such as the Pack Bot used by the U.S. military as a bomb detection and disposal unit, but the Roomba is the company's hottest product.

In 2003, iRobot sold 470,000 units of the Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner. In just the first three months of 2004, the company has exceeded that total, and has high hopes for the second generation of the product.

The new Roomba Discovery products will clean a house more efficiently than the older models, Angle said. The dust bin on the new Roombas is three times as large as the older generation and a more powerful vacuum engine is used. Tiny microphones on the product's base instruct the Roomba to spend extra time cleaning a particular area when a high concentration of dust particles is detected by the noise they make as they pass under the cleaning brushes.

"If it's down there, we'll get it," Angle confidently predicted. Roomba Discovery made quick work of a pile of dirt on the floor of a small, crowded conference room that hadn't been vacuumed in several days.

The Roomba Discovery also now has a home base to return to after a long session of cleaning floors. Previous generations of the device would clean until they ran out of power, leaving users to discover the robot beeping insistently in odd places around their homes. The new products detect when they are low on power, and return to a charging station for rest and relaxation.

Roomba owners can also set the robot to clean until it runs out of charge using a "Max Clean" feature. The new generation of Roombas should clean about three average size rooms on a single battery charge, which lasts about 120 minutes, Angle said.

A new 16-bit processor from Freescale Semiconductor Inc., formerly Motorola Inc.'s semiconductor division, powers the new generation of Roombas, Angle said. The first generation used an eight-bit processor.

The Roomba Discovery maintains its ability to navigate around common home obstacles, such as furniture, stairs or that pile of magazines that still needs to be taken to the curb. The newest generation is able to determine how large the room is and plot the most effective cleaning tactic based on the room's layout, Angle said.

The advances in the second-generation of the product allow iRobot to offer a basic version called Roomba Red for US$149.99, US$30 cheaper than the base model of the older generation of vacuum cleaners.

The Roomba Red does not come with the self-charging home base or a remote control. The US$249 Roomba Discovery comes standard with both of those features and takes only three hours to fully charge, as compared with the seven hours it takes the Roomba Red to recharge.

Amazon.com and iRobot's own Web site will have the new Roomba models available for purchase on Monday.

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Tom Krazit

IDG News Service
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