Robot Vacuum Basics

Just How Does an Automatic Vacuum Work?

Before reading over our reviews it may help to take a look at how an automatic vacuum is designed.

The first iRobot Roomba hit the market in 2002 and after its commercial success other manufacturers like NEATO soon followed with robot vacuums of their own.

The popularity of these little cleaning assistants has:

  • promoted innovations in new designs and software
  • resulted in other robotic cleaning systems like mops

Yet in the 16 years since that first Roomba, the basic form of the robot vacuum has remained mostly unchanged.

The Vacuum in an Automatic Vacuum

Similar to the layout of a tricycle, the automatic vacuum rolls on two main wheels with a nose wheel in front that provides balance and steering.

How Robot Vacuums Work - Bottom of the ILIFE A4s

The devices work with an array of cleaning tools.

A primary roller brush, similar to an upright vacuum, loosens and lifts particles away from the floor.

The brush is housed in a suction chamber that sucks all the loosened debris into a dust bin.

These dust bins have HEPA or HEPA-style filters that trap tiny particles and allergens.

Running an automatic vacuum with these features multiple times a week will help filter and clean the air in your home.

Most units also have one or more spinning side brushes for cleaning along walls and other structures.

The combination of these three cleaning components are often referred to as a “Three-tiered Cleaning System.

  1. main brush
  2. side brush
  3. vacuum suction

A robot vacuum claiming to have a “Four-step Cleaning System usually just means it has two rotating side brushes.

Rounding out the bottom is a battery compartment typically with a rechargeable lithium-ion battery pack.

You’ll also find charging pins. These allow the robot vacuum can easily connect to the charging dock on its own to recharge.

$ = less than $250 / $$ = $250 to $500 / $$$ = $500 an up

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$ N

The Robot in Robot Vacuum

Sensors are what turn a stationary vacuum into a responsive, self-navigating utility.

They determine when and how a robot vacuum responds to its environment by using simple pre-programmed maneuvers.

Manufacturers often keep the details of their navigation systems a secret, but they all have a standard group of sensors to help them move safely around a room.

Drop sensors are positioned on the bottom-front of a robot vacuum.

  • They bounce infrared light to the floor and back.
  • The robot vacuum will stop and change course when it takes longer than normal for this light to bounce back.
  • The bot will rotate and move away in another direction.

Wall sensors perform a similar function as cliff sensors but at a 90-degree angle to the floor.

  • They allow a robot vacuum to recognize when it is close to walls or and other objects.
  • They will then either move parallel to the wall for edge cleaning or navigate elsewhere depending on the setting.
  • In a standard cleaning mode they will normally rotate away from the wall.
  • In an edge mode the will move along the wall cleaning around the bottom.

Robot Vacuum Paths

Bump sensors do exactly what they sound like they would.

  • They register physical contact with objects and respond as programmed.
  • The robot vacuum might randomly turn 90 degrees and head off or even do a complete 180 and head back the way it came.

Lastly, optical encoders are sensors that measure the distance the robot vacuum has moved.

  • They record the number of rotations the wheels are making.
  • It gives the electronics an idea of where the robot is in relation to its charging dock or how far it has traveled since the last sensor made contact.

Standard Automatic Vacuum Cleaning Modes

There are three basic cleaning modes that almost all robot vacuums have.

Auto Mode

– The robot vacuum moves freely around the entire room. Feedback from sensors determine how it responds to surroundings.

Spot Mode

– The robot vacuum stays in a small area and moves in a circular cleaning pattern. This can normally be initiated mid-cleaning or manually.

Edge Mode

– The robot vacuum uses its wall sensors to sweep along walls and corners.

Robot Vacuums with just the standard features are not typically recommended for thicker rugs and carpets. They can also have trouble navigating in homes with darker carpets and rugs.

Sensors bounce infrared light around for navigation and, since darker colors absorb light, they can have a harder time “seeing” in these areas.

So Is an Automaic Vacuum Smart?

When you watch a robot vacuum going about its work in random directions does it actually know where it’s going?

At the very least, they use all of their sensors to navigate as safely as possible around a room.

Most higher priced use advanced navigation and mapping software. While some like the Roomba 960 use cameras to map rooms for future navigation.

If you dip a cat’s paws in paint the entire floor will be coated given enough time…and of course paint.

The most basic models follow one simple rule to get the job done.

Give an automatic vacuum enough time, and those brushes will reach almost every square inch of a floor. All while removing plenty of the dirt, pet hair, allergens, and anything else it picks up along the way.

What about price and performance?

A good starting price point is $200. At this price range you’ll find basic devices with solid cleaning performance. They won’t require ear plugs to operate and will navigate well enough that you won’t hear them beeping every ten minutes from getting stuck.

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As with anything else, higher prices don’t always translate to better performance. It pays, or saves, to do your research and consider the needs of your home.

If you have a small studio apartment with bare floors, you might find that a $99 unit is all you need to keep your bare feet from picking up those tiny particles that drive you nuts on an otherwise pleasant day.

Some variations to pay attention to reading product details include:

Operating Time: 90-140 minutes

Weight: 4-8 lbs

Noise: 52-60 db

Height: 2.5 – 4 inches

Suction strength is measured in Pascal Units (Pa). You don’t see them mentioned in detail sheets often.

If the manufacturer took the time measure and advertise a model’s Pascal Units then they’re probably pretty proud of its performance. Most manufacturers either just don’t take the time do it or don’t believe it’s worth mentioning.

If a robot vacuum is advertised as having “5x more suction power”, or something similar, look for an asterisk next to it. You might find a note indicating that this means it is 5x more suction than the previous model. The truth is that most robot vacuums provide satisfactory suction considering that this is their main purpose. If you want to make sure you’re getting a one that meets your expectations you can always read the comments from owners to see if they mention suction strength.

And what about the automatic vacuum remote?

Almost every automatic vacuum has a physical power button and some form of a start button that initiates an automatic cleaning mode. Unlike poking a lazy teenager to wake up and do some chores, a press of the start button on your robot vacuum will bring it to life, unhooking from its charging dock to dutifully begin vacuuming your floor.

Cartoon Remote

Remote controls have these same buttons and others used to control the robot vacuum’s features. Most have manual steering buttons for when your cat knocks over the cereal box you forgot to put away. You can simply grab the remote, steer your robot vacuum over to the mess, and press the spot cleaning button all from the comfort of your couch.

Other buttons might include a return to base option to tell the robot vacuum to return to its dock, a heavy mess button that juices up the motor for more suction strength, and scheduling buttons to use with either an on-remote or on-device LCD display.

As more manufacturers integrate Wi-Fi into their units it can be expected to see the remote control become less vital to robot vacuum control and see smart phone apps take over as the preferred method.