This is Katie. She’s 9, and she lives on the East Coast. By all standards, Katie is an exceptionally cool kid. In case you’re wondering why she’s smiling in this photo, it’s because that bottle of Coca Cola in her hands is supposed to be shared with an Andrew. It just so happened that Katie knows an Andrew. You see, Katie’s cousin is our very own Andrew “Optimus” Goldberg—lead teardown engineer and owner of the disembodied hands that you see in most of our teardowns. Andrew and Katie are also pen pals.
A couple of months ago, Katie’s mom—Maggie—e-mailed Andrew with a conundrum. Katie was a bit heartbroken. You see, Katie has a pet robotic dog, called Zoomer—and Katie is very attached to her little robo-dalmatian. Like real dogs, Zoomer is capable of learning tricks, wagging his tail, barking, and rolling over on command. Zoomer even wanders off and “pees” in the corner when you’re not paying enough attention to him (that scamp!). Except, lately, Zoomer hasn’t been doing much of anything.
Zoomer wasn’t charging anymore. Katie’s little pet dog was broken.
Katie's Zoomer was well past the 90-day manufacturer's warranty. There's no repair program for Zoomers. I even e-mailed the manufacturer and asked about buying some replacement parts, and was told that the company "do[es] not make spare parts, either for sale or replacement." In fact, “Never insert any sharp objects, pins or screws into Zoomer™ as this may puncture the internal battery!” is as close to repair instruction as Zoomer’s makers—Spin Master—have on their site.
This isn’t a new problem. A lack of repair information and a dearth of spare parts has doomed many a machine before its time. It’s happened to other robot dogs, too. Earlier this year, the New York Times documented the surprisingly touching plight of Aibo owners. Aibos are interactive robotic pets. They were first released 16 years ago, and Sony sold hundreds of thousands of them. In 2014, the company dropped support and repair programs for Aibos. And because Sony stopped production in 2006, the supply of spare parts for Aibos went dry pretty quickly. Aibos that broke stayed broken.
Hoping to save Zoomer from a similar fate, Katie’s mom sent the little dog to Andrew—who just happens to be a repair specialist. Andrew took Zoomer apart* and found the problem: the USB port was completely broken off the board. It looked like a manufacturing defect; the solder joints connecting the port to the board were pretty shoddy. When the port came off, it took a few traces with it, which damaged the board. Andrew tried to solder the port back on, but no luck—even with a microscope.
Luckily, Zoomer’s USB port lives on a small, modular board that connects to the main board with a cable. Andrew found a badly-broken Zoomer with a working USB board on eBay—which he dubbed Zombie Zoomer. Pulling the board from the donor dog and popping it into Katie’s robot dog should do the trick.
After the swap, Andrew crossed his fingers and plugged little Zoomer in.
A couple days later, Andrew mailed a fully-charged, raring-to-go Zoomer back to its home. Man and man’s best robotic friend were reunited. And Katie was all-smiles again. Here’s proof.
* No Zoomers were harmed during disassembly.