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Roomba turns 10, still the best baby chariot around

Clean with it, hack it, or put pets on it. With more than 6 million units sold worldwide, iRobot's lovable vac has become part of our everyday lives.

Which one's the future overlord?
Screenshot by Tim Hornyak/CNET

When MIT roboticists wanted to launch an automated domestic vacuum cleaner for the masses, some of their backers balked at calling it a "robot." People wouldn't accept a robot in their homes, they said.

Ten years and more than 6 million sales later, iRobot's Roomba has proved that robots are very welcome. In fact, we can't wait for them to do more than just suck up dirt.

Roomba marks a milestone today, a decade since first rolling off the production line in 2002. In branding the machine, iRobot, a military-robotics company, tried to convey a sense of movement and fun along with "room" to emphasize being at home. The "Roomba" is now in homes around the world.

It's in its sixth generation with the 700 series, and collectively Roombas have managed to clean more than 1 million tons of dirt, according to iRobot, equivalent to 2.87 Empire State Buildings.

The average Roomba travels 704 miles in its lifetime, covering 240,000 square feet and removing 300 pounds of dirt, dust, and miscellaneous junk from our floors, the company says.

Snakes and mice have tangled with the Roomba. But many animals have taken the robot for a joyride.

Cats, dogs, hamsters, ferrets -- even turtles and prairie dogs -- have all cruised around on top of the vac, demurely surfing carpets or trying to hang on for dear life. Check out the very cute YouTube vid below (no kittens were harmed during its making).

And then there are the kids. Some tots like nothing better than to spin out on a Roomba. It's like a mini human hovercraft, a Landspeeder for babies.

Apart from being a vehicle, Roomba has been hacked to do everything from obeying the commands of a Wii Fit to re-creating Pac-Man to serving as an indoor air pollution detector. Of course, it's also been weaponized.

Aside from its floor-scrubbing cousin the Scooba, Roomba spin-offs include the Create, a programmable droid that can be turned into a telepresence robot and whatever else you can dream up.

But the best thing about the Roomba is that it's commonplace now. In the same way that laser beams became ubiquitous in homes (remember CD players?), robots are part of daily existence for many of us. Things that seemed unimaginable decades ago become unremarkable; call it science-fiction creep.

Next month, the Roomba will be recognized as one of the most successful home robots ever. It will be honored at a Robot Hall of Fame ceremony at Carnegie Mellon University and will take its place alongside such greats as Asimo, C-3PO, and Unimate.

Not a bad way to celebrate. Happy birthday, Roomba!