Recently, the Canadian company bObsweep unveiled the bObi Pet – its latest robot vacuum cleaner, which showcases improvements over the previous bObi Classic with a special emphasis on features for cleaning up after pets. Boasting new algorithms aimed at dealing with pet hair, it has more sensors and brushes than previous bObi robots to help it clean hardwoods, laminates, and carpets. To give it the acid test, we put it against a two-bedroom flat that hadn't been vacuumed in 10 days and is home to a pair of dogs who shed like they're filling backorders. Here's what we found.
According to bObsweep, bObi Pet isn't just designed to be more efficient than its predecessors, but also to be more aesthetically pleasing. It comes in a choice scarlet and silver color schemes with a metallic top and a body sheathed in a bespoke "TouchMe texture" silicone finish. Measuring 12 x 12 x 3.5 in (30 x 30 x 9 cm), its Roomba-like puck shape is proportioned to allow it to pass under furniture and to navigate living areas without too much drama, thanks to a suite of 80 touch sensors, four edge-detection sensors to keep it from falling down stairs, and five wall detectors to spare the wallpaper.
The bObi Pet is powered by a front wheel and two side wheels and guided by an improved algorithm derived from the previous Bobi Classic. Cleaning is carried out by main roller brush, a duster powered by a 11,500 rpm motor housed in the detachable dustbin with a HEPA filter, and a rotating side brush for cleaning edges and scooping debris into the rollers.
On the rear, an included mop attachment with microfiber wipes can be attached for cleaning hard surfaces. In addition, the undercarriage houses a hard UV lamp that shines down to kill microbes and flea eggs, and helps break down complex organic molecules to reduce odors.
Also in the box is a charging station and a wall adapter that can be plugged directly into the bObi Pet. The station not only recharges the robot, but also acts as a navigational beacon and home base for the machine. The bObi Pet charges in about four hours and runs for an average time of one and a half hours per charge. When its battery reaches 15 percent, the robot automatically seeks out and docks with the station.
Also in the kit is the new bObi blOck, which is a plastic box that uses light beams to create invisible barriers. If the robot comes close to the prohibited area, the wall sensors detect the light and the device moves away. In this way, the bObi Pet can be kept out of areas where it's not wanted.
In addition, there's a wireless remote control, and a maintenance kit consisting of a spare main brush, spare side brush, cleaning tool, extra screws, extra microfiber mopping cloths, cross-head screwdriver, syncing tool, and user manual.
The latter is of prime importance because we quickly discovered that the bObi Pet is definitely not plug and play, and that reading the manual is vital for getting started. In fact, we'd recommend reading it from cover to cover to not only learn how to finish assembling and setting up the robot, but also the basics of its functions. Even then, there's a learning curve could take a few days because it's hard to gauge what is and isn't normal behavior for the device. None of this is complex, but it does take some study before pressing the On button.
Once the robot has been set up and fully charged, the key to finishing its commissioning is the handheld remote control. This disc-like pad has an LCD readout and a series of buttons that can turn the robot on and off, select its operating modes, set time and date, schedule cleaning times, switch the UV lamp on and off, select speeds, and pilot the robot directly. In addition, the control receives error messages for clogged rollers, an improperly installed dustbin, jammed wheels, and dirty sensors.
In operation, the bObi Pet can also be started manually from the remote or using the buttons on the top of its casing, or it can be scheduled to clean at a set time on designated days of the week. The robot has three modes: Go, which is for general cleaning at two selectable speeds; Waffle, which is for spot cleaning of spills or other areas of special attention; and Juice, which tells it to look for and dock with its charging station.
Once the bObi Pet is set to Go, it tracks from its base and follows walls, avoids obstacles, and uses sensors to seek out dirty patches and give them more attention. According to bObsweep, the robot only emits 60 decibels of noise and is claimed to leave pets undisturbed. When we tested the bObi Pet around two dogs not noted for their composure, it didn't outright spook them like a conventional vacuum, they looked at it with less than welcoming expressions as they tried to figure out what the invader was.
The makers recommend you not interrupt the Go cycle, but this is often difficult to do when the robot starts sucking up a USB cable or jams itself under the bed. One way to keep the bObi Pet from misbehaving is with its bObi blOck. Its battery-driven light signals keep it out of areas where it could cause damage or get entangled, such as areas with delicate carpets, fringe tassels, electrical cords, furniture where it could get stuck, and rooms of teenagers who haven't picked up their things since the last century.
However, there's always more than one area at a time to be covered by the box, so closing doors and strategically positioning pillows and shoeboxes is still a practical alternative. In addition, improperly placing the bObi blOck can shine the light so continuously on the robot that it can't find a way to escape and starts having what looks like a nervous breakdown.
The Waffle mode is like Go, except the cleaner remains within 3 ft (1 m) of its starting point and carries out a very thorough cleaning before automatically stopping. We tried it with carpet cleaning powder and with a floor cleanser with the mop attachment and both had satisfactory results.
The Juice mode can be activated manually or kicks in automatically when the battery charge reaches 15 percent. The robot switches off its vacuum and rollers and starts searching for its charging station, which is blinking a visible signal. If it can't find the signal, it starts circling and hunts in a more or less random pattern until its battery runs down.
To work properly the charging station needs to be against a firm surface with the cord tucked away so the robot won't try to suck it up. In addition, there needs to be a 10 ft (3 m) clearance ahead of the station and 2 ft (0.5 m) either side for the bObi Pet to dock properly. If the charging station is in another room, the robot gets hopelessly lost and furniture seems to confuse it. Ideally, it needs to lose power while more or less in a clear straight line with the charger while the station blinks its beacon light.
For navigation, the bObi Pet uses its wall sensors to avoid collisions, touch sensors to feel its way around obstacles, and lights on its underside to detect stair edges. The latter are sometimes confused by dark or intricate rug patterns, so the kit comes with blindfold decals to temporarily blind the edge sensors. More mechanical solutions to obstacles include the robot's flexible undercarriage that allows it to negotiate carpet runners and other obstacles, and its height, which allows it to go under most furniture (though we did have to keep it away from some dressers and wardrobes, which were high enough to get under, but not high enough to let it turn around).
One drawback of the bObi Pet is that it requires some form of maintenance after every cleaning run, though if the room is already relatively clean and the robot is used regularly, such routine tasks become fewer. Top of the list is removing the dust bin, which is much smaller than that of a conventional vacuum. It doesn't fill very fast, since the motor isn't particularly powerful, but the built-in combs and other features that allow the robot to handle pet hair without clogging get clogged themselves, so they need emptying after every cleaning session. As does the HEPA filter, which invariably gets clogged with dust. Fortunately, the bin is easily removed and opens up with the press of a couple of switches, but it still gets old fast.
The brushes also need frequent attention because pet hair not only gets tangled into the bristles, it also winds around the bearing pins. If this gets bad enough, the bObi Pet stops and flashes an error signal to the remote unit. Fortunately, the brushes all detach quickly and the kit has a special cleaning tool which, along with a pair of scissors and a toothpick, make hair removal relatively simple.
In addition, the optical sensors and lights need wiping every couple of weeks. If the bObi Pet really malfunctions, it has a self-diagnostic check-up mode for more serious troubleshooting.
Over several days, we put the bObi Pet through a series of tests. After a simple run to check if it was set up properly and to practice operating it, we pitted the robot against a two-bedroom flat where two largish dogs live that hadn't been vacuumed in ten days.
We soon discovered that the robot wasn't suited to handling anything like this big a job. Within 20 minutes, it stopped picking up and suction fell off dramatically. It needed frequent cleaning of the dustbin, filter, rollers, and even the side brush. Despite being watched carefully and tended until it ran out of charge, the results were disappointing as it simply pushed clumps of hair about and left obvious dust and dirt behind.
The third test was of its automatic start feature. We set it to begin cleaning at 10 am and left it to get on with the job, but when we came back, we learned that even an autonomous robot needs supervision as we found it ground to a halt, trying to eat a shoe.
The fourth test was conducted after a cursory vacuuming of the flat using a high-powered upright. This time, the bObi Pet came into its own. It ran several cleaning cycles separated by charging sections and the carpet became visibly cleaner after the worst had been shifted.
It also had less difficulty in navigating the flat after we found the best place to set the infrared barrier and shifted or blocked off things that were in harm's way. The only frequent casualties were a black coffee table, which the robot couldn't see, and the chrome sofa legs, which it seemed positively attracted to and would meander under the piece as if confused.
The fifth and final test was of the mop attachment. This was surprisingly effective with the vacuum and a modest wetting of soap cleanser doing a quick job on a tile kitchen floor. The bathrooms, however, remain a mystery because winter condensation made them too damp to risk testing for this review.
Overall, we found the bObi Pet impressive from a robotics point of view, with a navigation algorithm that seemed to improve with each repetition as the movements became more predictable and redundant passes became fewer. In the first test, it wandered clear down a corridor, but by the fourth, it showed more concentration in its path. Also, the device is certainly entertaining to watch.
However, as a vacuum cleaner, it won't give an upright with a decent motor any competition. This is not a device for primary cleaning. It's for keeping a home clean.
We found that the key is near-daily use, so the hair and dirt don't have a chance to gain a foothold. If you're the sort of person who can't find the time to haul out the upright more often than once a fortnight, this seems practical, but the US$849 price tag means some serious cost/benefit analysis needs to be done.