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Technisches Englisch 22

The vacuum robot

There are tasks that we like to leave to robots, but it is best to start small and not lose control
There are tasks that we like to leave to robots, but it is best to start small and not lose control
(Bild: Steffen Boiselle)

zu Teil 21: Safe Christmas decorations and fireworks

New Year, new me. Do you know such New Year’s resolutions? Or have you given up on yours for this year yet? Millions of people make such resolutions at the beginning of each new year, hoping to somehow make changes for the better. Areas of improvement mostly focus on health and fitness, spending less money, getting more organized, learning a new skill or hobby, quitting smoking or drinking less alcohol, spending more time with family and friends, travelling or reading more and most recently also being less time online.  In the UK there is a clear tendency for the younger people to make New Year’s resolutions, whereas the older generation seem to be less likely to do so. One reason might be that they are more realistic and know that they are rarely kept anyway.

At the end of 2019 Jack promised his niece Lucy that 2020 would be the year of getting more organized, tidier and cleaner in the household. In order to demonstrate his willingness to do so, he has bought a vacuum robot for Christmas and now thinks that he has done his niece a big favour and all problems are solved once and for all.

Lucy: Uncle Jack, Uncle Jack, look what the vacuum robot is doing while you are sitting here watching TV. You can’t simply switch it on and let it do all the rest. It’s not as easy as that. It’s just a machine after all. We must prepare the room and the floor for it. 

Jack: What’s wrong, my dear? I’m just watching the sports news, so please be quiet. 

Lucy: I’m sure if you turned around for a second, you wouldn’t remain quiet either. We must switch this stupid thing off!

Jack: I’m sure, we’ll be able to solve the problem in a minute. My soccer team is very close to scoring a goal. Then I can explain the technology to you. 

Lucy: Your wish is my command if that’s what you want. I’ll be back in 5 minutes. It’s also your stuff the robot is devouring here. Don’t worry.

Jack: What on earth are you talking about? (Turns around) Oh no, what a mess! The robovac  seems to be stuck. Small wonder, I would say. Its garbage compartment must be full. Let’s have a look.

Lucy: It’s tugged in my beautiful scarf, some shoelaces and also a receipt

Jack: Yes, it really seems that we have to tidy up before we let the robotic VC do its work. 

Lucy: It also seems that here the proverb »never look a gift horse in the mouth« shouldn’t be taken literally.

Jack: Very true, indeed. Come over here and have a look at the inside of our little vacuuming buddy. As you can see here, there are two motor-driven wheels, one front wheel, battery charge points on the left and right, infrared stair sensors and big side brushes. In the center, you have two counter-rotating brushes as well as the dirt compartment and filter right next to it. 

Lucy: What exactly are the sensors for?

Jack: Well, just as we humans have senses, the robotic VC has sensors to find its way inside a room, apartment or house. This here is the infrared sensor. When its beam detects obstacles and walls, the robot is automatically slowed down when getting closer to them. Additionally, there’s a touch sensor integrated in the plastic front bumper which stops the VC when it hits something. The infrared stair sensors, as their name suggests, detect stairs and steep drops and prevent it from tumbling down stairs.  When these sensors detect tassels or cables that the brushes might get tangled up in, the rotational movements of the brushes are stopped right away and the robovac tries to drive back to a safe place. 

Lucy: But how does it know where any extra cleaning is necessary when there’s a lot of dirt somewhere?

Jack: There are dirt sensors for that purpose which are actually acoustic impact sensors. A large amount of dirt causes more vibrations when it hits the metal plates of the sensors. When the sensors detect this, they pass on this information via electrical impulses and so the VC will clean this area again. 

Lucy: I have the impression, however, that this gadget spends much more time on cleaning a room than we’d do with a conventional vacuum cleaner. 

Jack: Absolutely true, I’ve also watched this. But it’s the precision of the navigation sensors that makes the big price difference between certain robotic VC types. The cheaper ones don’t measure and mark out the rooms precisely but clean the room quite randomly. Therefore, it can take half an hour or more to clean a room more or less completely.

Lucy: And how long does the battery last?

Jack: Our model can clean for roughly two hours. Then it returns to the self-charger and connects itself to it.

Lucy: How does it know where the charger is?

Jack: The charger emits an infrared signal. When the infrared receiver on the robot’s front bumper finds this signal, it follows it and docks itself to the charger. Some continue cleaning the floors as soon as they’re completely recharged. You could go shopping in the meantime. 

Lucy: But what about ours now? 

Jack: The problem seems to be that the dust collection box is very small and fills up quickly.  It’s very easy, however, to empty it and it doesn’t take very long. It’s more time-consuming if you have to clean the brushes and the filter, which you should regularly do because the battery will last longer then. All this is easier with a conventional stand-up vacuum cleaner, of course. You can use that much longer before having to clean it out. 

Lucy: Well, I hope all this cleaning of the VC robot won’t take longer than actually vacuuming the room with a conventional model. On the other hand, a robot VC can creep completely under our furniture, even couches, night stands, beds and coffee tables. It can’t move any furniture out of the way and clean behind it, though. On the other hand, it’s very simple to use and much lighter to carry upstairs to clean the floors there. It therefore looks like a good thing for elderly people. And if you really don’t have to worry about any stairs...

Jack: Cleaning stairs is one thing a VC robot can’t do. To develop something like this would be way too expensive. It also can’t clean crumbs from inside our sofa, armchair et cetera. Therefore, only cleaning the house with a VC robot won’t be enough in the long run. You always need a conventional VC, too. By the way, I wouldn’t have bought such a gadget if we had had a pet. Friends of mine have a cat and its hairs keep clogging up the bristles and thus cleaning the VC robot is always quite a chore for them. The other day, their cat made a mess on the floor if you know what I mean. The VC went straight through it and spread it all around their home. That was quite a disaster when they came home. They could already smell it when entering the house. 

Lucy: Oh no, how terrible. But are they otherwise satisfied with it?

Jack: Well, they have an older model. It sometimes still gets tangled up in telephone cables. Dangling chains on vertical blinds are also dangerous as well as rugs with loose tassels. The latest models, that is also the pricier ones can create a virtual wall for example to keep the robot clear of any obstacles or within certain boundaries. This is also done by infrared signals sent out by these virtual walls. When the robot receives such a signal, it knows it must turn around then. 

Lucy: All this sounds very much like we will all have home robots one day. I heard that the newer ones can be connected to the internet and can be controlled via mobile phone when you’re not at home. And in this way, they can also be used for spying on you, of course. 

Jack: I suspect our model won’t do this. It’s a cheaper one because I wanted to prevent you from going crazy and controlling it with your mobile when you’re out and about with some of your friends. So, now that we’ve cleaned everything inside, we can give it another try

Lucy: But before that, we have some homework to do first of all, that is tidying up the room. 

Jack: Well, I suggest that we postpone this to another day and also continue our discussion about the usefulness of our little robotic friend then.

Lucy: That’s fine with me, Uncle Jack. Then we can take another forbidden look into the gift horse’s mouth and decide whether we want to take the idea of our New Year’s resolution any further.



Some time ago we discussed the Present Perfect Simple, but, of course, there is also a continuous or progressive form (Verlaufsform) of the Present Perfect.

Present Perfect Continuous/Progressive

Forming the Present Perfect Continuous: The present perfect of ‘be’ (=have/has been) + verb + ing:

  • I/you/we/they have (‘ve) been working in this company for 30 years.
  • Ich/du/ihr/wir/sie arbeite/est/ten schon 30 Jahre in dieser Firma.
  • I/you/we/they have been writing emails all morning.
  • Ich schreibe schon den ganzen Morgen Emails.
  • He/she/it has (‘s) been working in this company for 30 years.
  • He/she has been writing emails all morning.

Negative sentences and questions: For negative sentences ‘not’ has to be used:

  • I haven’t been working in this company for 30 years.
  • You haven’t been writing emails all morning.
  • She hasn’t been working here for 30 years.
  • He hasn’t been writing emails all day long.

For questions only the word order (Wortreihenfolge) has to be changed:

  • Have you been working on it all day? Arbeitest du schon den ganzen Tag daran?
  • What have you been doing all the time? Was hast du die ganze Zeit gemacht? / Was machst du denn die ganze Zeit?
  • Haven’t you been installing the new wiring all week long? Habt ihr nicht schon die ganze Woche die neuen Kabel verlegt? / Verlegt ihr nicht schon die ganze Woche die neuen Kabel?

As you can see from the translations, in German we use either the Present Tense (Gegenwart) + ‘schon’ or the Present Perfekt (Perfekt). In English you can only use the Present Perfect for connecting the past and the present.

Use the Present Perfect Continuous

  1. To talk about events that started in the past and are still going on in the present: I’ve been trying the whole day to reach you on the phone. Ich versuche schon den ganzen Tag, dich telefonisch zu erreichen.
  2. To talk about events that started in the past and have just stopped but have produced a present result: John has been working in the garden for weeks. It really looks wonderful now! John hat wochenlang im Garten gearbeitet. Es sieht jetzt toll aus. 
  3. To ask or say how long something has been going on, the action itself is of interest: I’ve been waiting for you for two hours.

Comparing the Present Perfect Simple and Continuous

The present perfect continuous refers to the same period of time as the present perfect simple. Both are needed for a period of time that began in the past and continues until now and perhaps even further.

Present Perfect Simple Present Perfect Continuous
The speaker emphasizes the result of something. The speaker emphasizes the duration of something.
To say how much we have done, how many things we have done or how many times we have done it. To say how long something has been going on.
How many pages have you read? Wie viele Seiten hast du gelesen? How long have you been reading? Wie lange liest du schon?
The phone has rung four times. Das Telefon hat viermal geklingelt. The phone has been ringing all morning. Das Telefon klingelte schon den ganzen Morgen.
Signal words Signal words
this week/month/year since 9 o’clock
already, not yet, so far for 10 years, for ages
ever, never, up to now all day, all week
ever since, since/for over the last few years
just, recently, lately  



In each sentence put one verb into the Present Perfect Simple and the other into the Present Perfect Progressive/Continuous. First try it by yourself and then check your answers by clicking on this link.

  1. We _________________ (email) each other all week and I think that we __________________ (make) real progress with the whole planning process.
  2. She _________________ (lose) her cell phone – she ______________ (look) for it since lunchtime.
  3. I ____________________ (look) through the contract all morning and I ____________________ (notice) one or two points that need clarification.
  4. We _________________ (make) cars on this site for over ten years. This financial year, we __________________ (invest) over €5 million in a new production line.

Answer key


Choosing the correct tense is not easy in a foreign language. Deciding about the simple or progressive form in the second step is even more difficult. So, it will need some practice to get used to it. You can find many more exercises and explanations on the Internet when you google this particular subject for example. There is a lot of material there with online tests that also give you the answers and your results afterwards. 

So much for today. Next time Lucy and Jack will continue their vacuum robot discussion and we are going to have a closer look at this grammar topic again. In case you decided on New Year’s Eve to further improve you English, don’t give up too soon. So, stay tuned!

Vokabelliste The vacuum robot

zu Teil 23

Über die Autorin
Sabine Barz

English communication-skills trainer


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