Originally created 12/26/05

Robot cleans up in the home



SAN FRANCISCO - I'm lounging on the couch with my feet up, sipping a soda and watching the late-night sports recap. I reach over to playfully wrestle a squeaky toy from my dog's grip.

Believe it or not, I'm also busy mopping the kitchen floor. The latest wonder machine from iRobot is whirring and slurping around my house.

The company that gave us the button-cute Roomba robotic floor vacuum has now unleashed Scooba ($399), a smart mop that further shortens the list of domestic duties.

In one pass, Scooba can pick up loose dirt and debris, lay down a cleaning solution, scrub the floor and then squeegee it dry, according to iRobot. Most of that proved true in testing a loaner from the company. Not all, but most.

Scooba, like its older sibling Roomba, is a nicely designed unit. The pale blue, round chassis is about 3 inches high and 14 inches in diameter.

The top comes off easily, revealing the rechargeable battery in the base. The hood holds the cleaning solution and a receptacle for the dirty water that is sucked up by rubber tubing during scrubbing.

Scooba uses two ounces of a special, bleach-free Clorox cleaner with the rest of the tank filled with water. If Scooba grows in popularity, expect to see this solution at a supermarket shelf near you.

Once I'd fully charged Scooba, it was only a two button process to get the little guy started. I pressed "power" to wake Scooba up and "clean" to make him start scrubbing. Scooba came to life, emitting a few tones of agreement to tell me he was on the job, and began his duties.

At first the unit spun around in a slowly widening spiral, but eventually it set out on a few straight paths across the sealed cement floor. As the unit reached table legs and chairs, it nudged them and redirected itself. Scooba has a very gentle touch in this respect and didn't leave and marks on the walls or topple my classical guitar resting in a corner. It simply made its rounds.

Scooba's little brain was quite impressive. A small fist-sized device that shoots a beam of light to create a virtual wall, it helped corral Scooba on the hard floor and away from a carpet.

Scooba also knew enough not to send itself toppling down a small flight of stairs.

The unit only got stuck once - between a wall and a bicycle tire. Try as it might, Scooba couldn't free itself and eventually gave up and powered down until it was rescued.

After about 20 minutes of crawling around, Scooba had wiped the dining room spotless, even swallowing the brownie crumbs strategically tossed to test it's thoroughness.

The self-cleaning only went so far. Scooba stopped about halfway through several tests with a small "check tank" display and a belly full of dirty water. The hood had to be removed and I dumped the waste water in the toilet before resuming.

When the cleaning was complete, Scooba needed a brush and belly scrubbing, meaning that when Scooba got dirty, I eventually got dirty.

And Scooba didn't exactly squeegee the floor dry, as advertised. Instead, it left a snail trail of cleaning solution. That dried quickly, however, leaving only a squeaky clean floor behind.

All told, Scooba still required far less manual labor than traditional floor cleaning.

I score this one a major victory for progress in task-oriented robotics. The price tag may scare away some potential buyers, but not having to scrub floors could make it well worth the price for many.

On the Net:

http://www.irobot.com/



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