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A self-cleaning, talking robovac

THE one thing I hate more than having a dirty house is cleaning said dirty house. So thank the world of tech for the robotic vacuum cleaner, an invention that at its birth - said to have been in 1996, on the BBC science programme, Tomorrow's World - seemed almost too good to be true.

These gadgets, known also as robovacs or floorbots, can be programmed to clean your floors or rugs when you are busy doing something else. How life-changing is that?

This week, we had the chance to check out the Deebot R98 (DR98), the latest model by Ecovacs Robotics. If the name doesn't ring a bell, it is a Suzhou-based, 1998-founded tech company, reportedly the No.1 robovac brand in China, with a 65 per cent market share.

So, just how disruptive is this iteration of the robovac?

For starters, it speaks - in a woman's voice and in a language of your choice.

My colleague, this paper's deputy digital editor who tested the robovac in his maisonette apartment over the Labour Day weekend, found the DR98 announcing its work status in real time. It can give a cry for help, as in "I am stuck!" or "My driving wheel is suspended"; it also declares its accomplishments, as in "I am connected to the Wifi network" or "Cleaning is complete".

My colleague also found the DR98 to be high-tech, relative to his existing robovac, a South Korean household brand name. He had bought his machine at a discounted price of S$400; the DR98 is now going for S$1,049 on qoo10.

So exactly how high-tech is the DR98? Well, it is self-emptying. When it returns to its charging station after cleaning, it automatically empties its own dustbin into a compartment in the charging station. No human intervention required.

Of course, the dust compartment in the charging station has to be manually emptied at some point, but it is far larger than the one built into the robovac, so it means this manual emptying doesn't need to be done as often, saving you time, as well as having to deal more often with the airborne dust raised during this chore.

The DR98 uses Smart Navi technology, a proprietary laser scanning and mapping system, to scan and generate a map of the home. During the half hour it takes to do this - and this is a once-only procedure undertaken the first time it cleans a home - it plans an optimal cleaning path so that it avoid obstacles and takes the shortest route back to the charging station.

One time, the wheel of the DR98 robovac got onto the doorsill of my colleague's kitchen during this mapping. Had it not announced "I am stuck", it would have taken him a while - since he was doing something other than cleaning his house - to realise that the robovac was in a spot. He responded by manually moving it to a smooth surface so that it could regain traction. (Like current robovacs, this one has anti-drop sensors so it can clean without taking a tumble down kerbs and stairways.)

The DR98 seems to be technically ahead of many robovacs in the sense that it can be operated from anywhere using a smartphone. Download the Ecovacs app, and you will be able to get the machine to start a cleaning session; you will also be able to monitor its position and progress, ask it to clean only the dirty zones (by dropping pins, like on Google Maps) and even set virtual boundaries to keep it out of certain areas.

The DR98 has a jump ahead of existing robovacs also in its mop attachment, a cleaning cloth that allows both wet and dry mopping. There is also a cordless, detachable handheld stick vacuum that can clean hard-to-reach surfaces.

Lastly, my colleague found the DR98's suction power to be strong, relative to that of his current machine. But while this means it does a better cleaning job, it's also noisier. But he thinks that it cleans more gently and safely, thanks to its mapping and anti-collision sensors; the DR98's cushioned bumper provides furniture with extra protection.

Today, it's a love-hate relationship between humans and robots. Humans love that robots make their lives better by taking over mundane tasks such as household chores, but hate that one day, robots will displace many of their jobs. The one thing most humans are missing though, is that whether robots are ultimately used to extend humanity - which of course they should - is determined entirely by designers, who are human.