What does this dad want for Father's Day? Rosie the Robot (an end to my robot saga)

It ain't the Jetsons, but personal robots have come a long way. I still want Rosie for Father's day, but I'll take any of the robots I've been testing as a surrogate for the time being.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

Remember Rosie from the Jetsons? She wasn't perfect. In fact, her various malfunctions and character flaws were relatively frequent recurring plot themes in my favorite childhood cartoon. However, the Jetson's themselves never had to clean anything. Well, they may have had to clean up the occasional nuts and bolts that fell off of her, but you get my point.

With 5 kids, a couple of dogs, a cat, a ferret, and countless kid-friends in and out of my house, cleaning is something we do too often. And cleaning has to be something of a team effort with that much nastiness floating around our crazy house. Thus, it wasn't long ago that I began my Robot Saga as I called it, seeking out a reasonable replacement for our little Roomba 500 Series that our house had driven to the breaking point.

There's more to this story than just Roombas and their competitors, though. I was promised sentient, useful, if slightly hapless, robot maids as a young boy (along with flying cars, of course). I was supposed to be able to spend more time with my family and live a life of ease because robots did all of the dirty work for me. Well, here it is, almost Father's Day 2011, and chances are, I'll be spending the weekend scrubbing bathrooms clean of the grime that 7 of us (along with the occasional dog or ferret bath) manage to accumulate. That happens to be my weekly cleaning chore since it requires "elbow grease" as my wife likes to point out. I must have very greasy elbows.

In the 1980's, robots received a lot of negative attention because they were seen as replacing American workers in factories that were becoming increasingly automated. After that, robots were seen as novelties, Terminators, or Transformers, but the idea of a consumer robot never really took off. By the early part of this century, you might occasionally see a robot moving around a hospital carrying samples or documents (or just entertaining patients), but again, these were isolated. Remote controlled robots became increasingly commonplace in the news as they took risks for American bomb squads in the Middle East but they were hardly sentient, charging in to detonate IEDs for our soldiers.

The robots that fascinated us in our childhoods never materialized. And I just don't think that companions for lonely Japanese men really count either.

So we lower our expectations a bit of what personal robot technology should look like and suddenly the Bedford, MA company, iRobot, starts cranking out Roomba vacuum cleaning robots with some real intelligence. I mean artificial intelligence. Interestingly, it's also iRobot at the forefront of the military applications I mentioned above.

The point here is that, while they aren't Rosie, all three of the vacuum-cleaning robots that I've been testing throughout my saga do, in fact, make my life easier. There's still more than enough to do to keep our house from being overrun by kids, bugs, and critters of various sorts, but our floors are remarkably clean. These robots, unlike our kids, don't say, "But I cleaned my room last week!" As long as they have a charge, they'll clean.

Next: So which one was the best Rosie replacement? »

Since it's pretty clear that my grandkids probably won't even get Rosie or flying cars, I might as well give a quick overview of these little robots (some smarter than others) that I've been testing and see if I can declare a winner in the Battle for Dawson's Floors.

The first robot is the Neato XV-11, the cleaner that started this whole process. Since it only worked briefly after we received it, I blogged about my disappointment and my problems. Suddenly, iRobot wanted to send me their latest Roomba as they so kindly put it "to test while I waited for my replacement Neato." A Mint Floor Cleaner arrived at roughly the same time, making my wife nearly giddy at the prospect of such triple cleanliness.

Once I did get the new Neato, though, it was hard not to like it. Not only does it use jet engine technology to pick up dirt, but it sounds like a jet when you turn it on. I might be talking about vacuum cleaners and scrubbing soap scum here, but I'm manly enough to appreciate jet-powered robot vacuums. All of this aggressive vacuum technology translated to a large dirt cup that always seemed to be packed full of new dirt extracted from what appeared to be a clean floor.

It also made for a very loud robot that had a tendency to carry a large cedar chest across my living room floor. The robot could get itself underneath the chest, but would invariably get stuck. Its large rubber wheels and powerful motor were never put off, though, and would just keep dragging the chest until it was wedged into a corner somewhere, at which point it would finally beep and display a message on its LCD screen, asking me to clear its path. One night, I caught it carrying the chest away and tried to pause it manually. However, as I struggled to get control of the little beast, pulling at its curved plastic surfaces only to lose my grip and have it scurry back under the chest, I managed to get a couple of splinters. Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics came to mind. This robot is just a little too strong for its own good. We finally just took to using the magnetic strips that came with it to keep it out of the living room (the Neato won't cross a magnetic line). I didn't, however, pay $400 to only be able to use my robot vacuum in selected rooms of my house where I won't have to engage it in hand-to-hand combat to keep my furniture intact.

If the Neato is the Chuck Norris of vacuum robots, then the Mint is the Pat Morita. Unlike the Neato and Roomba, the Mint is only for use on hardwood floors. And yet, like Mr. Miyagi, the Mint's strategy of "wax on, wax off" proved extremely effective at keeping non-carpeted floors really clean. It can use Swiffer cleaning wipes or the included re-usable microfiber wipes for dry sweeping floors and can also use a much heavier microfiber rag (also included) for mopping. Wet the rag, attach it in true Swiffer style, turn it to mop mode, and the Mint quietly slides back and forth across the floor. In an hour, the room is suddenly clean and the rag can be rinsed out and reused in the next room. While the Mint took the longest to charge, it also lasted the longest and methodically (and almost silently) cleaned every inch of the floor.

I've found the Mint for as little as $160 online and, if you have primarily hard floors, it's worth every penny. It lacks the cliff detection of the other 2 robots, so be careful at the top of stair cases. Otherwise, the Mint is so diminutive and quiet that it's worth having just to startle visitors when they see the little white robot out of their peripheral vision.

Last but definitely not least was the Roomba 770. Before I go further, check out this video from iRobot: The 770 is the most expensive robot of the bunch, although it has come down considerably in price since it was introduced. At $500, it costs as much as a high-end Dyson, and yet I have to recommend it if you're in the market for a robot vacuum. It works flawlessly, never steals my furniture, never goes back to its dock so aggressively that it climbs over it (yes, the Neato does that about 10% of the time), and even has built-in HEPA filtration. It isn't plagued by the excessive maintenance needs of earlier Roombas (although it still requires more regular cleaning than either of the other two robots) and has an incredibly useful Spot Clean feature, allowing it to pick spills or messes in specific areas.

If nothing else sells the average guy, this one has a remote control. No, you won't be able to use it to defuse roadside bombs, but you can make it clean anything, anywhere. Or just torture the cat. According to iRobot, it also uses multiple algorithms to ensure that it regularly cleans every part of a room and has significant programmatic improvements that allow it to deal with changes in rooms better (a lazy dog that plops down on the floor in its path, for example, won't prevent it from finding its way back to its dock automatically).

It may not have the sheer sucking power of the Neato, but it cleans the heck out of your house by virtue of more sophisticated programming and sensors.

Like I said, none of these are Rosie, but they would all make pretty awesome Father's Day gifts. The Neato for the testosterone factor, the Mint because it's cheap and works very well, and the Roomba because it's simply the best. And it has a remote and a hackable programming interface (have a serial cable and some spare time?) that would probably let it get you a beer this Sunday far better than your dog ever could.

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