A Grime-Fighting RoboMop

The Scooba scoots about, vacuuming and scrubbing floors.
The Scooba scoots about, vacuuming and scrubbing floors. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)

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By Rob Pegoraro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 14, 2006

Hardwood floors look beautiful -- especially seen from a foot away as you scrub them the night before your mother-in-law arrives for a visit.

It's just too easy to pretend that sweeping alone is keeping the floor pristine -- at least until company's coming and you realize that maple or oak (not to mention tile and linoleum) aren't supposed to feature subtle gray smears. Then it's panic time.

Many people deal with this by outsourcing the whole job to cleaning services. But in the 21st century, can't we outsource the work to machines instead?

That's the thinking behind the Scooba, a floor-washing robot from iRobot Corp. ( http://www.irobot.com/ ), the Burlington, Mass.-based company that introduced the Roomba robot vacuum four years ago.

Like the Roomba, the Scooba is a low-slung disc (roughly 3 inches high and 14 inches wide) that propels itself across the floor on hidden wheels, finding walls and other obstacles by mindlessly bumping into them.

At $300 or $350 for either of two models -- the cheaper, just-released Scooba 5800 runs on a smaller battery than the original Scooba 5900 -- the gadget could pay for a lot of mops. It also takes longer to clean a room than a human being and generally makes more noise. And it won't do better than a motivated human.

Then again, the Scooba doesn't have to outperform Martha Stewart; it just has to be better than you.

The device belies its computer ancestry with a surprising simplicity. After filling the "clean" half of its removable tank module -- it takes about three tablespoons of Scooba's Clorox-brand, non-bleach solution, plus just under a quart of water -- you just slide the tank back in place, place the Scooba on the floor and press "power," then "clean." Then stay out of the way. Or not; you won't have trouble outrunning this thing.

In action, the Scooba whirs and whines loudly as it meanders around a floor, squeaking occasionally as it pirouettes around table legs and disappears under furniture.

It looks lost, charting apparently random diagonal and spiral paths across the room, traversing some spots again and again while crossing others once or twice until it has calculated that every accessible inch of floor has been dealt with.

All the while, it administers the same treatment: vacuuming up debris, spraying cleaning solution on the floor, gently scrubbing off dirt with rotating brushes and slurping up the now-filthy cleaning residue.

The Scooba won't try to drive through walls or over thresholds, but gentle slopes can confuse it enough to activate an "I'm stuck" light while it waits for rescue. To keep it from straying, a "virtual wall" (a battery-powered pod that sends out an ultrasonic signal) can be positioned on the floor to set a boundary.

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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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