Actually Useful Home Robots


The age of the home robot is here. Well, sort of. Unlike Rosie the Robot, science fiction's most iconic indentured servant, today's domestic machines aren't multitaskers. They're highly specialized devices, designed to handle a single chore. Even the latest version of home bot that started it all, iRobot's Roomba, is still a dedicated vacuum, leaving the mopping and sweeping to other models. So while there's no one machine that can take over all of the menial labor in the home, here are the best bots for each, individual job — wearing a maid outfit and talking sassy not included.

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For Vacuuming
iRobot Roomba 980
In the nine years since the Roomba debuted, iRobot has released a steady stream of them, with occasional, iterative upgrades to the robotic vacuum's sensors and cleaning components. But the basic idea has been the same — unleash the bot in a living space, and let it randomly bounce off walls and furniture until it's covered every square inch of reachable floor. With the new 980, the venerable Roomba gains a much-needed injection of smarts. The bot now maps its environment as it moves through it, recognizing large furniture as landmark reference points, instead of something to repeatedly slam into. That makes it the most efficient and high-tech Roomba yet. [$900;]

For Mowing
Robomow RS622
Like a Roomba for your lawn, the RS622 is part of a growing category of robotic mowers that are gaining popularity in Europe — where lawns tend toward smaller sizes — but that are virtually nonexistent in the United States. That's too bad, since lawns are a near-perfect environment for robots, with their flat terrain and low-to-nonexistent foot traffic, and mowing is one of the chores most commonly farmed out to humans. The RS622 is sturdy enough to remain outdoors full-time, and its dual blades slice grass small enough to avoid the need for bags. It's not terribly smart — it stays within a wired-off perimeter that you stake yourself — but its tireless, mowing and recharging and mowing again until the entire lawn is clear. That could take hours, or days, depending on the square-footage, and while the RS622 is rated to handle lawns of up to a half-acre, Robomow offers larger and smaller models. And no, the RS622 won't make mincemeat out of your fragile, human toes. It stops cutting and reverses direction when it senses any obstacleans, living or otherwise. [$1,799;]

For Sweeping/Mopping/Swiffing
iRobot Braava 380t
This robot is an ingenious mix of simple and sophisticated. It mops and sweeps with disposable Swiffer-style wet or dry pads, or reusable microfiber cloths, and orients itself like an ancient mariner, gauging its position by constantly referencing an infrared spotlight cast on the ceiling (the indoor, robotic equivalent of the North Star). It used to be called the Mint, until iRobot paid it the ultimate compliment by snapping up its makers and rebranding the bot as the Braava. The Braava 380t cleans wood, tile, and other hard floors in a tidy, efficient grid, and it can dole out liquid from an internal reservoir. [$300;]

For Searching
Amazon Echo
Can you really call a voice-activated computer/speaker a robot? Of course. It's a machine that responds to sensor input, turning spoken commands into action. That could mean defining a word (based on a Wikipedia search, for example), turning on the lights (if you have Philips Hue or similar smart bulbs), or telling you if the local pharmacy is still open. Echo is quite possibly the most responsive, and least-aggravating voice-controlled product available to day, with a satisfyingly high success rate when it comes to recognizing words, even from across a large room. Echo also functions as a decent music speaker, but it shines as a personal assistant (it can set alarms and check calendars) and answerer of random queries, from who was in that movie, to what the weather will be like tomorrow. There are other digital butlers on the horizon, such as the crowd funded Jibo robot, but Echo is already here, and already surprisingly useful. [$180;]

For Gutter Cleaning
iRobot Looj 330
It's no coincidence that iRobot dominates this list. While the majority of consumer robotics manufacturers crank out cutesy, glorified toys, the biggest player in the industry focuses on bots that solve household problems. And iRobot's simplest, and most specialized product is one of its best — a robot that cleans gutters. The Looj is essentially a small tank with a drill for a head, except that drill is made of rubber, and the whole thing is small enough to scoot through most gutters. Leaves and other debris are swept out of the gutter as the bot drives forward. Its carrying handle can detach and act as a remote control, or the Looj can determine its own speed based on sensors, before returning to its original position for retrieval. You still have to get on a ladder, in other words, and deal with whatever's ejected from the gunner, but the robot does the bulk of the dirty work. []