This robot scrubs your floors

It may not be able to carry on a conversation like the robot in "Lost in Space," but iRobot's Scooba will mop. Photo: Scrub-a-dub Scooba

First, iRobot tackled carpets with the Roomba. Later this year, it will unleash the Scooba for those dingy kitchen floors.

The Scooba is a household, robotic floor cleaner designed for hard floors made of materials such as tile and linoleum. It vacuums up loose particles and applies cleaner to soak up dirt, then dries the floor, which also makes it safe for wood.

"It is like an industrial floor cleaner, but for your home," said iRobot CEO Colin Angle. "Even if it wasn't a robot, this (makes mopping obsolete). With mopping, most of the time you are spreading dirty water around. But because it's a robot you push a button and it cleans your floor."

Limited supplies of the Scooba will come out this holiday season. Angle will show the Scooba off at the D: All Things Digital conference in Carlsbad, Calif., on Monday.

Although the idea of robots performing domestic chores makes some scoff, demand is starting to take off. Last year, the privately held iRobot pulled in $95 million in revenue, and revenue's been growing at a compound rate of 150 percent per year for the last three years, according to Angle. The Cambridge, Mass.-based company, which emerged out of MIT, now employs 250 people.

Over a million Roombas shipped in two years. "Freezers took six years (to hit a million units). Microwave ovens took nine years," Angle said.

Several companies have also created robots to take on tasks in hazardous environments such as battlefields or collapsing mine shafts.

As with the Roomba and other projects, iRobot teamed up with an industrial giant to develop the Scooba. This time, it was Clorox. One of the big engineering challenges was creating the cleaning fluid. Most are slippery, and would throw off a robot's steering systems.

The Scooba also had to be built lower to the ground than the Roomba.

In all, the cleaning process takes five stages. First, an airjet blows foreign objects to a "cereal port," or vacuum. "It is powerful enough to sweep up Cheerios or dried pasta," Angle said. Second, two fluid jets squirt out cleaning fluid and water. Next, a mustache broom spreads the fluids evenly to help absorb dirt.

Scrubbing brushes then try to eliminate particles. In the fifth stage, the dirty water is sucked up into a separate liquid chamber with the help of a squeegee.

The floor "is not perfectly dry, but it is pretty dry on the back," Angle said.

The price has not been set. The Scooba is more complex in design than the Roomba, but consumers won't get sticker shock, he said. The high-end robot vacuum, the Roomba Discovery, sells for $280.

The idea to develop a device for hard floors came from customer feedback. After they'd buy the Roomba, customers would tell the company that "what I really, really need help on is scrubbing my floors," Angle said.

More domestic robots may follow. "What I want is something that will fold my laundry," said Angle.