In general this system works very well, but it does have one niggle. If for whatever reason the robot misses a bit of one of your rooms while mapping, it will never clean it. It will act as though it doesn’t exist, and if you want that bit cleaned you need to delete the map and start again. For this reason you’ll want to open the doors and clear the floor as much as possible when the robot is learning.
To speed things along you can set them to go on training runs, where they learn your home much quicker. Once they have good maps you can put furniture wherever you like and the robots will always uses their sensors to work around it. They also won’t fall down stairs, and if they need to charge before their job’s done they can return to their home base and remember what they were up to once they have some juice.
All these smarts (and their tendency to make whimsical confirmation noises) can make the robots feel like funny little animals running around your house, and I’ve noticed my toddler hunting both of them like woolly mammoths whenever he thinks nobody’s looking; concocting elaborate traps to drop clothes pegs in the Roomba’s way or trap the Braava in the bathroom. While I absolutely wouldn’t leave a kid unattended with one of these things, they have dealt well with being harassed. They haven’t run over any toes, will stop their moving parts if something picks them up and can get back to business quickly once you’ve moved on. They’ll also eventually whistle and send you an SOS notification if they do happen to be scuttled.
Of course, while they have a lot in common, the two robots are also highly specialised for their distinct jobs.
The Roomba will adjust its brushes for hard floors and carpets, working extra hard if it senses a lot of dirt. Even though it’s round I found it does a good job of cleaning in corners and along walls and counters. When its bin is full it doesn’t require your help; it returns home and empties the dirt into a disposable bag inside its home base, which can hold 30 bins worth.
Meanwhile the Braava is compatible with a number of different mop pads and automatically detects which is attached. With the included washable wet mop it analyses the floor, backs up, sprays water ahead of it and then mops. It generally works in efficient straight lines unless maneuvering around obstacles, although I did once catch it trying to do our narrow hallway laterally like Austin Powers in the luggage cart. It can spray a harder jet for sticky stuff, and effectively avoids getting any water on carpets, furniture, rugs or walls. You can also get a washable dry sweeping pad, or if you’d prefer to never touch a dirty mop pad you can buy disposable ones (wet or dry) that can be ejected from the robot directly into the rubbish bin.
Overall both of these robots have done a great job cleaning my home, and saying “Hey Google, tell Roomba to clean the kitchen” is certainly a lot less work than going to grab the vac myself. You don’t even have to do that if there’s a certain time of the day or week you always want to clean; just set up a schedule and save the commands for when your kid crushes Weet-Bix all over the floor.
But, as I’ve said, these devices are still far from being truly unobtrusive or autonomous. For starters there is some upkeep and ongoing expense, with the Roomba’s base needing a new disposable bag every couple of weeks depending on how much you clean. These are very expensive at $60 for three, though you’ll find plenty of compatible, unofficial rip-offs much cheaper online.
On the Braava side you’ll need to wash the mop pad or buy new disposable ones, as well as fill the tank with water every clean. (The tank lifts easily out of the robot, so you don’t have to carry the whole machine to the sink.) iRobot suggests you mix some of its floor cleaner solution in with the water, and warns against using other liquids, but I found it did a good job with just water. The company doesn’t yet have Australian prices for its disposable pads or cleaner.
Aside from upkeep, you will also still need to physically carry the robots if you have a multiple level home or room dividers higher than a centimetre or so. My home has some metal dividers lower than that, and while the Roomba charges over them like a tank the Braava often has trouble and needs a nudge.
Tim is the editor of The Age and Sydney Morning Herald technology sections.