What A Roomba Can Teach Us About the Future of Drones

Who runs the robot world? Roombas.

Drones and Roombas currently squat and hover at opposite ends of the consumer robot spectrum. Roombas are virtually idiot-proof, quietly charming, and a source of offbeat Internet fads like Roomba knife fights. Poorly piloted consumer drones, on the other hand, have a tendency to swoop dangerously out of the sky like drunk pelicans, get shot at by the dangerous people of New Jersey, or remind terrorists - and people who live down the street from terrorists - that they are in constant danger. But it’s only a matter of time until civilian drones embrace the tao of the Roomba. It’s either that or crash and burn.

When Roombas were first introduced in 2002, lazy neatniks embraced the automated vacuum discs with a mixture of joy and anthropomorphization. Here’s Sam Lubell in The New York Times offering his first impressions, back when you would buy a Roomba at a place like Brookstone rather than

"The little beeping guy, no longer a stranger but a member of the household, has a personality. You root it on in its quest."

In the years since, Roombas merrily trundled across the carpet of public zeitgeist, scoring a sexy cameo on Arrested Development and, with the addition of cats, a dedicated Tumblr fanbase. The robot’s parent company, iRobot, claims that over 10 million Roombas had been sold as of February 2014. That's a big number, considerably bigger than the 500,000 drones Parrot, the major manufacturer of quadcopters, sold about half a million drones between 2010 and June 2013.

The real reason for the Roomba’s success: It has a clearly defined job; people know what it's for. What are drones good for? Well, crop dusting, mapping, scientific research, jogging, video taping anything, making kids with kites feel poor… the list goes on.

On a Roomba’s front, where you might find the simple eye clusters of a horseshoe crab, sits an infrared beam source; this allows the device to gauge its surroundings by measuring the time it takes for an emitted beam to bounce back to a photocell. Flip the Roomba’s shell over, and behold its guts: a pair of wheels to move, a brush to sweep up dirt, and, along the edge, more sensors. The cliff sensors face downward, and if the floor suddenly drops out — like at the top of a stair case — the robot motors away. Just turn a Roomba on and the little bugger boogies to the tune of 67 decisions a second.

Consumer drones, unlike Roombas, don’t live in a flat universe and must gauge not just distance but rotation and acceleration. The Parrot’s AR Drone 2.0, for instance, can stabilize itself thanks to onboard accelerometers, gyroscopes, and magnetometers. But drones like the AR 2.0 can’t fly in a random path, nor do they typically have the computing power to fly solo. (Professional UAVs are either piloted or follow pre-programmed flight paths, algorithmically crunched before take off.) Like the hobby RC aircraft of yore, operators on the ground steer quadcopters with an app or joystick.

For drones to become more Roomba-like, they'll have to get smarter. The next step could be hovering on the horizon. One of the iRobot cofounders, Helen Greiner, recently launched a [Kickstarter to fund the CyPhy LVL 1 Drone](( CyPhy is a flying copter with a camera, six propellers — two more than typical, portending an arms race the likes of which haven’t been seen outside the razor blade industry — and, presumably, something like the Roomba’s sensor. According to the Kickstarter video, a CyPhy drone operator can demarcate “Geo-Fences,” virtual boundaries past which the drone won’t fly. Three weeks into the campaign, CyPhy has raised over $430,000. But will the amusement of towheaded children be enough for what amounts to a roughly $500-a-pop flying camera?

For CyPhy or other drones to follow the Roomba’s lead, they’ll need to be easy to operate — phone apps, rather than joysticks, are a smart idea — and, as much as possible, fly themselves. Sensors, sensors!

Put a different way, it’s all about the sensors, which means that consumer drones will soon operate in bounded space. Though its unclear what chores (cleaning out the gutters, geotargeting dog waste) they’ll actually end up doing, it’s clear that they’ll be hovering around our homes. We’ll name them and turn them into memes. They just have to get friendlier first.