Trick out your Roomba

iRobot opens its Roomba to developers, trains "swarming" robots to work--and even sing--together. Photo: Roomba gets on schedule

The Roomba is about to become far more customizable in the home, while teams of "swarming" robots train for the field.

Burlington, Mass.-based iRobot will release a new version of its robotic vacuum cleaner, called the Roomba Scheduler, that comes with a handheld and lets users program vacuuming times and create two virtual walls. The virtual walls prevent the Roomba from going beyond a certain point, sort of like an electric dog fence. The vacuum itself comes with improved software, but is otherwise identical to the Roomba Discovery SE currently on sale.

The Roomba Scheduler will sell for $330. At the same time, iRobot will sell the scheduler, two virtual walls and a software update for $60 to current Roomba owners who want to upgrade their machines. The Scheduler will come out on iRobot's site in August and will hit the shelves of Sears, Best Buy, Kohl?s and a few other stores in September.

Meanwhile, the company will open up the application programming interfaces for the vacuum so that third parties can make cameras or other attachments and, ideally, grow the overall market for personal robots, said CEO Colin Angle in an interview.

Roomba Scheduler

"This is an opportunity for other companies to piggyback on iRobot platforms. The Roomba has a serial port," he said. "There is a group that is working very seriously on a physical avatar. I might log into a Web page and see what the robot sees and be able to drive the robot via my Web page...You could have a wireless Web cam and serve it up to the grid."

It's early in the robot market, but sales over the last two years have been promising. So far, iRobot has sold over 1.2 million Roombas, which sell for $200 to $300 each, depending on the model. The Scooba, which cleans and washes linoleum and other hard floor surfaces, will come out toward the end of the year.

Some analysts estimate that around 4 million household robots will ship in 2007.

"There is a lot of high powered interest in this space. I know of a bunch of venture funds that have money set aside for robotics," said Angle. "You're going to see some other good management teams formed in the robotics space."

Cleaning up the battlefield
The military, meanwhile, continues to invest in autonomous vehicles. The Army has deployed PackBot, a reconnaissance robot from iRobot, to scope out caves and other dangerous locales in Afghanistan and Iraq. The company is also building a smaller and lighter version of PackBot, called the Small Unmanned Ground Vehicle (SUGV) under a $51 million contract with the Army's Future Combat Systems program.

The ultimate idea behind the SUGV and the Future Combat Systems Program is to create a fleet of robots that can be deployed rapidly and gather intelligence about unfolding situations.

"It is all about picking out the enemy in a sea of noncombatants," Angle said. "The right people can get the right information and send it back down to the people at the pointy end of the spear...The human has always got to be in the loop when you get to any fire decisions, but you could have an automated system sifting through data that you want a human to see."

Some military robots could also be equipped with non-lethal weapons like stun-guns, Angle speculated.

Angle further added that iRobot is conducting tests on swarming robots, generally smaller autonomous vehicles that can communicate with each other and coordinate their actions.

In one experiment at the company, 128 swarming robots diffused across an area to find an object. The robots could tell their relative position to one another through wireless communication. If one died, a neighbor would shuffle over to take its place, inciting a chain reaction until the vacancies got filled.

"Each robot could only see or hear for about four feet," he said. "You'd see when robots recognized when they were on a frontier. They would push into the frontier and drag others with it."

Properly equipped, these sort of robots could provide a map or inside view of current activities inside a building, similar to the "bugs" in Minority Report.

Researchers at the company also got the robots to play music together.

Despite the anthropomorphic overtones of the singing swarm robots, iRobot says it has no interest in the humanoid or pet robots coming out of Asia.