A robot that cleans your gutters

Published: Monday, October 1, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, October 1, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

Forget R2D2. The next frontier in robotics is a miniature tank that borrows some of the technology behind military bomb-defusing robots - to eject rotting foliage from your gutters.

At the DigitalLife conference in New York Thursday, iRobot chief executive Colin M. Angle unveiled two additions to the company's home robot line, which has so far focused on vacuuming and scrubbing. The Looj Gutter Cleaning Robot speeds down gutters to clear out the gunk, while the ConnectR Virtual Visiting Robot lets people check on their homes by laptop - remotely interacting with kids, playing with pets, or just snooping around to make sure the laundry is folded.

While the Looj and the ConnectR are far from the romantic vision of robots as electronic companions, Angle said, they are real robots that give people more control over their homes.

"When we talk about the iRobot home and products, it's all about finding ways to add to our quality of life,'' Angle said.

iRobot, the Burlington maker of the military PackBot robot used in Iraq and Afghanistan to scout enemy positions or disable roadside bombs, has sold 2 million of its Roomba robotic vacuum cleaners worldwide and also offers a mopping robot called Scooba. But the newest offerings bring robotics to new parts of the home.

The Looj Gutter Cleaning Robot is a slim, bright green tank controlled by a remote. The Looj is about 2 inches high and about a foot long, so it can fit in a standard gutter but won't slip into drain spouts. For $99, the mundane task of cleaning a gutter becomes more like Formula One racing. It takes just one trip up the ladder to drop in the Looj, then the homeowner turns it on and drives it back and forth, using the pointy end to bust up clogs while a rubbery propeller dredges the gunk out, clearing 80 feet in 10 minutes.

The second addition to iRobot's home robot line is the ConnectR Virtual Visiting Robot, a disc-shaped robot that looks a lot like the Roomba home vacuum, except for the camera perched on one end. Using a laptop computer, a person can call the ConnectR, which uses the home's wireless network and Internet telephone technology. From a laptop, remote users manipulate the camera, steer the robot, and talk through a microphone to give themselves roving eyes, ears, and a physical presence in a home.

To people in the room with ConnectR, the robot is like a speaker phone that can follow them around, while the remote user can read a bedtime story, or coach someone through a complicated task. While it doesn't have a video screen to display the person controlling the robot, it does have a mood light allowing those in the home to get a sense of how the user is feeling, whether it's angry (red) or calm (yellow or green).

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