Smart is not enough: expand and integrate your vacuum robot
with iBeacons, infrared and WiFi.
July 2015
When Asimov introduced "The Three Laws of Robotics" in 1942, a future vision of smart appliances and domestic robots helping in ordinary daily tasks was already imprinted in the professor’s forward mind.

Almost a century after the laws were laid out, we've seen Aibos, Naos, drones, and more recently, Pepper, the domestic robot made by SoftBank. If autonomous roaming around the house is a key aspect of things known as robots, we may be already there.


Beyond cats and Sci-Fi

Vacuuming probably isn't the must fun thing to do, especially if you don't have a Dyson or a cat - that's what some viral videos showed us in the past years. Videos starring cats, dogs and even baby ducks raised public awareness around the new product category and delivered a social avalanche of funny moments never seen before.

They might make one wonder the real value of such products, but it all depends on your needs, lifestyle and even character: If you have a space that stays inhabited most of the time, which you visit every week or so, a vacuum robot might be for you. If you're rich, living in a 3 floors villa equipped with an elite squad of servants and domestic helpers, a product like this might not be for you, unless you have a cat or a duck, naturally.


Beyond autonomous mode

"A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law" said Isaac Asimov's in his robotics laws. Most of the currently made products work in full autonomous mode with pre-scheduled working hours and automatic return home (charging station). That's easy to understand, and it works great.

Like anything else in life, there will always be a reason or time when you'll need things ad-hoc, either because of the popcorn incident or that cable guy who has just visited the client in the ranch. Naturally, 99.9% of these products are shipped with simple remote controls that allow you to manually start and stop vacuuming, and in most cases, even drive the robot manually just like you do with remote controlled cars.

The possibilities and fun end right there - with the exception of a few products, WiFi or Bluetooth connectivity isn't common. Brands now are starting to introduce the first connected robots, such as the Samsung Powerbot VR9000 and the iRobot Create 2, which is targeted at developers and students.

Having your vacuum robot integrated with your smart automation system allows you to disable motion/security sensors when the robot begins vacuuming or to dispatch punctual cleanings when you have arrive home on rainy days for example.


Getting things connected (and done)

Infrared remote technology has been around for more than 60 years and, believe it or not, it's still more popular and widely available than Zigbee or even Bluetooth, even though sometimes infrared is positioned within the "truly wireless" and optical categories. It may not have the advanced technological innovations of more recent wireless technologies, but besides being widely available, it has the advantages of being cheap and easy to interface with by using an infrared module or adapter.

An infrared module basically replaces (or co-exists in harmony with) your robot's remote control. If your home has a simple or even more advanced automation system, being able to control and communicate with infrared-controlled appliances is a huge advantage that opens unlimited possibilities.

Modules shipped with APIs (in some cases as simple as HTTP, REST or JSON commands) let you interface and control all kinds of remote controlled appliances, including your iMac, audio system, TV, aircon, digital camera, Dyson products, and the list goes on.

After your infrared module is configured to connect to your WiFi network, all you need is a place or app where you can send commands to your robot; that's where Beecon comes in. To start, you can learn all the original remote control commands/buttons using the app feature that allows you to learn commands of any infrared remote control. With commands learned and tested (you can manually dispatch them as you learn), Beecon gives you options of sending commands to your robot based on a variety of actions or events, such as when you leave or arrive home, weather forecast, temperature, GPS coordinate or proximity if you have Estimote iBeacons.

You can also control and automatise your vacuum robot using your computer, other home automation systems, IFTTT or even -remotely- if your pets are too lazy when you're not around.

Having a Bluetooth or WiFi-enabled robot, such as the iRobot Create 2, opens further possibilities if you're a developer or like hacking things. Higher end models from Samsung or LG can be controlled using a smartphone and even allow you to watch a live video feed directly from the robot's onboard camera, but getting them integrated with other devices, apps or systems can be challenging since both companies aren't developer-friendly yet.



Why robots do it better?

  1. They never get tired and they’re never lazy. Vacuum robots clean the difficult spots that you hardly make an effort to reach, and they do it slowly. They do it multiple times and they never rush. Having 2 hours of minimum autonomy that is delivered by the majority of products, don't undersestimate what these weird little creatures can do while you're away.

  2. They work when there’s no one around, not when you’re watching movies, talking on the phone or listening to music. You can let them work by themselves during the times that are more convenient or even when you sleep. They can also be started and stopped remotely if your pets need some fun when you're away.

  3. They’re quieter. Compared to the vast majority of traditional vacuum cleaners, vacuum robots are considerably more quiet and less destructive to surfaces, objects and walls. They make approximatelly 50% less noise than their bigger brothers, and higher end models are even quieter.

  4. They help with allergies and general health. Because they can be programmed to work only when your family is not around, air particles and dust don’t go up in the air when you’re home. Daily vacuuming is also benefitial to allergic people and using a robot won't require you to get in direct and constant contact with dirt and dust.

  5. They’re more energy efficient. The monthly cost of having the robot's charging station adapter plugged to a wall is still considerably lower than running a full size vacuum a few times a week, and considering it will be constantly plugged and getting charged, you can have your home vacuumed every day at least one time.

  6. They free you up to spend time doing more productive things, such as watching your dog chasing the robot with a cat on top of it.


Things vacuuming robots don't like

Slippers, flip-flops and paper sheets are high one the list. Flat and thin objects seem to give vacuuming robots a hard time (or maybe your slippers are too dirty). Cables spread across the floor are show stoppers. Robots get curious, mess with them, and eventually get them rolled around the rotating brushes. Just like when we walk through glass doors that have no yellow caution signage, stools, chairs or tables with thin legs can't be well detected.


Getting down to business

Autonomous vacuum robots come in all colors, shapes and prices. From Dyson's not yet available 360 Eye Robot to cheaper Chinese alternatives, the average price of a vacuum robot ranges from $100 to $1.000 USD. Brands like iRobot and its Roomba series pioneered the segment by introducing the first products of its kind back in 2002. Below are some of the most popular vacuum robots available on the market.


Infrared controller

As most of the robotic vacuum cleaners have no connectivity via WiFi or Bluetooth, infrared becomes the method of choice. Low-cost, versatile and as popular as WiFi, an infrared module enables you to control and connect to an infinite range of products and home appliances, either using the Beecon app to control it directly or integrated with your home automation system.


Beacons

You can use iBeacons to automatically start or stop the vacuum (send it back to the charger) based on pre determined scenarios, such as when your cat or dog walks in the room (using an iBeacon tag collar and the Beecon app as a stationary and always plugged iOS device) or when you leave home everyday.



What the three laws of robotic vacuuming should be?

  1. It must work flawlessly (or close to that). Even lower-end robots deliver surprising results in regards of how much (and how well) they’re able to vacuum and even mop the floor, depending on the model. They may not execute the function flawlessly yet, but they do a very acceptable job that will make you surprised.

  2. It must have a minimum level of “intelligence” either onboard, on a base station or in a remote software/app, as long as the vacuum robot is truly able to map simple patterns, detect problems and “understand” simple paths in order to repeat or avoid them.

    Current vacuum robots seem to do the job in a successful, yet not so effective or "intelligent" fashion, which relies solely on the robots’ onboard distance sensors to make them turn or go back when an obstacle is detected. It works in most of the cases, but that’s not necessarily what us, humans, expect from robots that are supposed to be intelligent or smart at least. An integration with your automation system could easily solve the problem of having a robot stuck under a furniture or a dead end corner.

    By using WeMo motion sensors for example, your system can detect if there’s is no movement during the robot’s scheduled cleaning time and dispatch actions or alerts if a room becomes still for more than a minute for example. The system could either send an infrared command to move the robot backwards or a mobile notification to its owner.

    That’s an example of how multiple devices, systems and apps working together can create a broader layer of “conciseness” and “intelligence” around rooms, homes, cities or factories.

  3. It has to be more efficient in all ways. Because this rule survives under the existence of the previous two, without working flawlessly (doing the work better or as good as a human), which is only possible if the robot has a minimum "intelligence" level required to do the kind of job (cleaning floors may have techniques, but it isn’t rocket science), it’s not possible to be more efficient in time, quality and cost/power consumption.

Conclusion? With rule number one almost hit, number two not so close to become reality, and rule three waiting for rules one and two to become true, today’s vacuuming robots are good and we will see much improvement in what they’re cable to do and how well they integrate with other appliances and systems in the next years.

Just like a toe that isn't considered intelligent, but still is part of an intelligent and self-aware body, “intelligence” doesn’t have live exclusively inside the robots, it must transcend the appliance physical boundaries and dissipate within other devices, sensors and systems around. It’s called teamwork.


Let the fun begin

Robotic vacuum cleaners go beyond "pet fun" — they keep your office or home clean and they do the dirty work when no one is around. They prevent you to get in contact with dirt or dust particles, and especially, they don’t require your precious time and effort to do repetitive or daily tasks. Good robots will always find their way back home quickly and without bumping things. Your pets will love it!



Control your robots with Beecon's latest version at the App Store.