Book review: Hacking Roomba: ExtremeTech

I’ve recently bought a fourth generation Roomba, which is a vacuum cleaning robot. I bought this brand because it is well-known and has a good history of hackable robots. So the next step was to figure out how to hack it, and hence this book.

Content and opinions

The book is split in three parts with progress hacking solutions. It is to be mentioned that it is dedicated to hacking the third generation, but the interface should be the same, although some instructions may have changed. Perhaps a new edition of the book may be needed.

iRobot had the good idea of opening their pets to hackers. It is done through a serial interface called ROI. The first encompasses the creation (or the buying) of a connector between a PC and the Roomba. There are several solutions, from a simple serial cable to a Bluetooth interface. Once you have a connector, you need to learn and use the interface to make the robot move and feel. Each captor and motor is explained as well as how it can be interacted with. The main examples are given through a Java library (I would have prefered a Python library, of course).

The second part is perhaps the least interesting. It starts with making an application to steer the robot. It is done with Processing, an obscur language that runs on the JVM. Why not one of the top five script language on it? You may then use the inner beeper to make some music. Indeed, it can be fun, but it’s also not that easy, even with the help of the book. More fun is making art drawings with addition of pens sticked on the Roomba. I was a big fan of these kind of drawngs when I was young. The last chapter exposes the Roomba as a big input device such as a mouse. Of course, it can help doing some sports…

The last part is about using additional platforms to make a more complicated robot. First, you may connect it to the Internet to steer it from the other end of the world, the next step being using WiFi. Then, you may upgrade its brain with a classic Linux board, adding a camera, … OK, this is fun, but it’s not a cleaner anymore. It begins to be even very ugly and not that autonomous unless you stick a big battery pack. But I have to be agree on some aspects of the mod: it’s a good basis for building one’s custom robot. But you may find a skeletton for less (or not).

Conclusion

I intend to keep my Roomba as a vacuum cleaner, not a complete robot with a wifi router on top of it. Still, it is interesting to know that you can do a lot with it, and first of all with a simple serial cable or a Bluetooth connection.

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