NASA Sends Roomba, Saves Billions

by Alan Graham

Helen Greiner, of iRobot Corporation, is giving a keynote presentation this morning at the O'Reilly E-Tech conference. In case you weren't familiar with the company, they make the fantastic (from what I've read) Roomba robotic Floorvac.


I desperately wanted one of these (my wife won't let me buy one - she doesn't think it will work), but more importantly I'd love to see this conference. I think that what iRobot has done is phenomenal. They are the first company to deliver on the promise of consumer orientated robotic products (that perform necessary tasks), while not being priced beyond the pockets of mere mortals. I find this a very exciting time and I can't wait to see what they have up their sleeve for the future.

And if not being "allowed" to buy one wasn't bad enough, I'm not able to make it to see Helen Greiner's presentation. But in honor of her appearance, I thought I would share the following faux-news story (no real names were used - as far as I know).


(Washington) Riding on the recent success of the Mars M2K4 mission, NASA has recently announced plans for Stage 1 of a manned mission to Mars. Facing a number of budget crunches, NASA has stumbled upon what promises to be a new era in space exploration.

"We think we've found a good fiduciary balance for our Mars exploration programs. By using more readily available consumer technologies, we're able to cut costs while still serving the public," said Allen Johnson, Chief Scientist for Mars Exploration. "We found that significant money could be saved by using more off-the-shelf technologies." Johnson says that the idea came to him while reading about how Apple Computer was able to build the iPod faster and cheaper, using already developed technologies.

Mars Exploration

NASA has decided to use an already proven technology for the exploration and collection of soil samples on the surface of the planet. "We've ordered 1,000 Roomba robotic floor vacuums from the Sharper Image," said Johnson. In a move of what could be considered fiscal genius, NASA also opted for the five year extended warranty. "How can we lose? If the project is a failure, we just make them replace the non-working units and we can sell them on eBay. Have you seen how much money people will pay for stuff with an official NASA sticker on it?"


Image of the Roomba 1 Mars Explorer

Johnson went on to mention that NASA saved so much money on this project, they were able to buy each team member an Ionic Breeze air cleaner and a massaging chair for their office.

The Science

The project, set to launch next year, will propel 1,000 Roomba units into space for the several month journey. On Arrival, those units will be deployed across multiple geographic locations, which will allow a diverse collection of surface materials. "In the past, we've had to build in sophisticated GPS and communication technologies. This has had a significant impact on our financial resources. Out of the box, the Roomba will collect samples over an area the size of three medium rooms, for 90 minutes,. That's almost 600,000 sq ft," Johnson said.


Computerized rendering of Roomba 1 deployed to Mars surface.

Unable to get a quote on the viability of the technology for this project from Roomba's manufacturer, iRobot, we were able to retrieve the following from their website:

"Instead of thinking the way you do about finding dirt [soil samples] and picking it up, Roomba has a machine's view of the world. It uses artificial intelligence algorithms to clean [explore] most efficiently, even though it isn't anywhere near as smart or sensitive as a human [scientist].


Computerized rendering of Roomba 1's exploration algorithms


Computerized rendering of Roomba 1's soil collection

Future Projects

While the Roomba project is definitely a first for NASA, there is talk of plans for future exploration with consumer products. "When we sent out Voyager, we were extremely limited in what we could send along with it. If you remember, we were only able to send out one LP, and it only had one half of The Best of Burl Ives on the b-side. Now with an iPod, we can not only send out Burl Ive's best, but the entire catalogues of Ray Coniff, Andy Williams, and Henry Mancini." said Johnson.

Stage 2

The next stage to this project will be to send a manned mission to Mars in order to collect the Roomba units and return them to Earth for analysis.


I'm excited to see that the Roomba has been a great success. I wish them all the best and I can't wait to see Roomba Deux. Someone send me the audio of the presentation!!!