Speculative future of housework part 2 – floors

The housework survey from the introductory post in this series didn’t break down cleaning tasks other than washing dishes. In my experience, keeping the floor clean is a not insubstantial fraction of that. But, perhaps, not for too much longer:

The jumbo Frisbee circulating its way around the tiles is an iRobot Scooba 390, and it’s a combination vacuum and mop. You fill it with warm water and, optionally, a little vinegar or some proprietary cleaning fluid in the mix, put it on the floor, and let it rip. It’s smart enough to work its way around furniture and odd-shaped rooms, and not fall down stairs; if you need to block off an area for some reason, you can use a small battery-powered box sending out an (IR, I think) beam called a “Virtual Wall”.

As you can see from the video, the Scooba doesn’t perform its mopping in quite the same order as a human might; it’s really quite chaotic. But it works, and touch wood, it works pretty well. I can personally vouch for this, having recently bought one.

You don’t have to sweep everywhere beforehand, but I do a quick tidy-up near the cat’s litter tray and food bowl first, and lift the kitchen chairs off the floor. Then you let it rip; once it’s finished you have to clean out the dirty water tank and clean the filter and squeegee. That takes a bit longer than what cleaning a hand mop would, but not a lot. The whole process takes about five minutes of my time, and the floors are better than what I manage by hand.

Yes, it was quite an expensive gadget, and there are reports that they are less reliable than one might hope. But right now, in 2013, you can get a robot to do most of the work of cleaning hard floors.

The Scooba has a vacuuming older brother, the Roomba, which has been available for ten years, and there are a number of other vacuuming robots on the market. The Roomba is actually a good deal more independent than the Scooba; it’s able to find the charging station on its own, navigate its way from room to room and finish one completely before starting another, and run at pre-scheduled times. After initial configuration, the only thing you need to do to a Roomba is empty the dust bin when it’s full. However, while technology bloggers seem to give the Roomba the thumbs-up, the household drudgery professionals at Choice Australia have tested earlier (now superceded) models of the Roomba and other robotic vacuums, and found their vacuum performance wanting. In short, it doesn’t suck hard enough compared with a conventional, mains-powered vacuum cleaner.

But even if that’s also true of the current generation of robot vacuums, it’s unlikely to be true of their successors. The primary factor limiting the Roomba’s vacuuming is the power available from its battery. And, thanks to laptops and now electric cars, battery technology is improving all the time. By 2020, a battery of the same size and cost as the Roomba’s present battery will hold roughly twice as much charge, and thus the 2020 Roomba will likely be twice as powerful.

The Bottom Line

The current state of the art in robotic floor cleaning is expensive, and in the case of carpet vacuuming it’s not clear whether the state of the art is effective. But they are close enough to be confident that floor cleaning is likely to take people a lot less time in the future than it does at present.

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10 Responses to Speculative future of housework part 2 – floors

  1. Iain Hall says:

    Men and women have different criteria for domestic cleaning and that is one of the foundation stones of domestic disharmony IMHO. That said as cute as device looks this I can’t help thinking that it must use more energy than mopping your floors manually.

    • I wouldn’t boil differences in neatness preference down to a simple binary gender issue (and note the enormous can of worms in unraveling where such differences might come from). But one simple point I’d make here is that geeks are not reknowned for their cleanliness!

      As for the Scooba’s energy use, it’s a piddle in the ocean. The battery is a 14.4 Volt, 3.5Ah, NiMH – it doesn’t even use lithium-ion batteries. That’s 50 watt-hours, or the equivalent of about 1 cent’s worth of electricity. Throw in inefficiencies in the charger and you’re up to maybe 2 cents. It also uses less water than a conventional mop.

  2. BilB says:

    That was a pretty frantic cleaning exercise. One of the other videos demonstrated a machine with laser room scanning and highly organised route mapping. There is a lot of scope here for real innovation. I’ll be writing to all of these manufacturers to request a machine both cleaning and vacuum with a dozer blade feature and extra traction for my daughter’s room. It is going to need an elevated laser scanner pod to see over the mess, but I think that it is do-able to scan the room clear and clean a spot, then doze the mess into one pile (that could be a chute straight done to the charity recycle bin) then clean the rest of the floor. It is just programming and a suitable teflon coated blade shaped to roll the mess into a ball like shape.

    It would be wrong to overlook that satisfaction that is achieved in creating order from chaos. Household work is not all uncomfortable effort. It can also be recreational, particularly when it is ones own mess being cleaned for ones own comfort.

  3. Catching up says:

    Would have ;liked to see a table and a chair or two, in the room.

  4. BilB says:

    Oh? This is your machine, Robert? Yahoo, I’ll be keen to hear reports over time and where you think the technology is heading. There is nothing like immersing in the technology.

  5. Catching up says:

    Could you show some photos of where you used it.

  6. LJS says:

    Re: gender expectations it really does vary: I’ve shared houses with women who can grot with the best of them, as well as guys at the other end of the spectrum. Best to be up front about it.

    We’ve got a 500 series Roomba and it’s cute, and does a fair job. My partner and I draw the cleanliness line at “When I walk bare foot through the house does stuff stick to my feet.”, so we’re not overly picky >:D, and Roomba cleans up just fine. I think the idea is that you use it a bit more often since it doesn’t always get everything on the first pass, and it’s just a matter of emptying the bin and pressing “Go”. Carpet fluff tends to clog it fairly quickly. It seems pretty robust having chewed a few cables, wedged itself on various bits of furniture etc.

    We have limited storage space, and are renting so modifications like cable routing are out, and as a result preparing a room for Roomba takes more time than I’d like to make sure it doesn’t eat shoe laces, network/electronics/audio cabling etc. So not as much time saved there as hoped.

    Lastly our Roomba seems to have forgotten how to dock, which is mildly frustrating. Particularly if you anthropomorphise it and stand there watching as it fails to dock again…and again…there’s an xkcd about the tendency for you to sit and watch robotic devices go about their job, but Google is failing me.

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