Roomba Showcases Robotic Capabilities

eWEEKEND: The Roomba 560 features a number of improvements over previous versions, including scheduling capabilities.

The new Roomba 560s roots go much deeper than floor cleaning. The device comes from iRobot, a company with a long history of military and industrial robots. In fact, iRobot is the company that made many of the robots that searched the World Trade Center ruins in 2001. It also makes robots that patrol modern battlefields, and its robots are famous for disarming bombs for fire departments.

eWEEK Labs recently tested the Roomba 560s robotic potential and, yes, cleaning prowess.

Originally Id asked iRobot to send one of its gun-totin war robots to the Washington, D.C., Labs offices. Sadly, the request went unfulfilled. But iRobot did agree to send over the latest in its line of Roomba floor cleaning robots.

Getting the Roomba 560 up and running is fairly simple. It comes with a charging stand and a power supply. Plug in the stand, set the robot on it, and it charges. Once the light on top stops flashing, its ready for cleaning. You press a large button in the center, and it cleans until its batteries run down, which translates to about four average-size rooms.

Of course, the original Roomba would clean floors, but the 560 makes life easier for its owner. You can schedule the device so that it will wake up and work when its convenient for you, cleaning floors unattended.

In addition, the Roomba 560 ships with two devices iRobot calls "Lighthouses," designed to let the Roomba know where one room ends and another begins, and to move on to a new room only after the first is clean. The Lighthouses can sense when the Roomba is cleaning and turn themselves on and off automatically.


Once the Roomba has finished cleaning, or when its batteries run down, the robot can use the Lighthouses to navigate back to the charging station and automatically recharge. The charging station contains an infrared beacon that lets the Roomba navigate to it.

In addition to improved suction, iRobot has made a number of improvements in the Roomba over the years. The most notable improvement is that it no longer seems to get stuck under furniture. Chairs that baffled an earlier version, for example, no longer presented a challenge. In addition, the Roomba seems more able to get itself out of tight corners, such as the spot in the lab behind the equipment rack.

While it didnt matter much in the lab, the Roomba is able to detect when its getting close to furniture or walls, and it slows down so that it doesnt knock things around. As a result, its quieter than its predecessors. The devices anti-tassel technology keeps your oriental rugs safe, and it also allowed the Roomba to navigate Ethernet cables, power cords, signaling wires, audio cables and the like in the Lab. In fact, the Roomba was able to sweep beneath most of those cables, although iRobot doesnt claim that capability.

This is not to suggest that the Roomba is perfect. It still has trouble with corners, for example. And some types of rugs can get pushed around before the robot figures out how to clean them. For light-duty cleaning in most normal houses, it works really well, and using the Roomba will mean that your only chore will be to occasionally vacuum the corners and clean out the Roombas sweeper and dirt bin. That, by itself, makes the Roomba worthwhile.

The Roomba 560, which costs $350, is at the top end of the nonindustrial iRobot line. Theres also a Roomba 530, which doesnt include the Lighthouses or scheduling capabilities, and the Roomba 415, which is a lot like the original Roomba.


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Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...