The Roomba Vacuuming Robot may not stand up to a Dyson for sucking power, but for $280, it is an incredibly sophisticated robot. Its locomotion system scoots it along at one foot per second, while its sensors detect and navigate obstacles. To build something that complex yourself requires serious robotics chops. So I was thrilled when the folks at iRobot told me recently that they’ve made the Roomba a hackable robotics platform.

Any Roomba rolling off the assembly line after October 24, 2005, has a serial command interface (SCI)—new software that allows it to be controlled by preprogrammed instructions, making it an ideal ready-made base for any robotics project.

The Roomba can’t store instructions itself, so you’ll need to connect something to its serial port to feed it directions: a computer, a microcontroller board, or one of the new third-party control devices, such as the RoboTooth, which lets you steer the Roomba with a Bluetooth cellphone.

  • Why: To patrol your home while you’re away, capturing images you can access on any web-connected device.
  • The gear: tablet PC, webcam, cable, battery pack, strong Velcro
  • How: Use the onboard PC to send the Roomba instructions to (roughly) follow a predetermined path around your pad. Set the webcam to snap a picture every few minutes and automatically upload it over your WiFi network to a photo-sharing site such as Flickr, which you can log onto from anywhere.
  • Advanced trick: Wire the battery pack to recharge when the Roomba hits the base station so that it can operate indefinitely.

Build your own Roomba robot

  • Cost: $30 and up
  • Time: 10 hours
  • Difficulty: easy | | | | | hard (Editor’s note: 4/5)

How to build a ‘bot, simplified

1. Make sure you have an SCI-enabled Roomba.

2. Build a level-shifting circuit and a cable that plugs into Roomba’s serial port.

3. Buy a BASIC Stamp microcontroller ($34; or other control device.

4. Attach microcontroller or device to PC to load it up with instructions for the Roomba.

5. Download free software listed at the link above, then use it to program the microcontroller or other device with motion commands for the Roomba.

6. Connect microcontroller or other device to Roomba’s serial port with cable.

7. Attach additional parts as described below. Impress friends and family.

This story has been updated. It was originally featured in the January 2006 issue of Popular Science magazine.